When LeeAnn Applewhite started running DNA analysis on commercial seafood samples in 2015, 75 percent of them – species ranging from grouper and snapper to catfish and shrimp – were mislabeled.
“We were testing thousands of samples, and some of it was unintentional mislabeling; it was a bycatch species with [species like] grouper or snapper but the whole load was not erroneously labeled,” said Applewhite, co-founder and president of UF Innovate | Sid Martin Biotech graduate Applied Food Technologies.
Although the numbers have dropped – Applewhite estimates just 20 percent of seafood was missed labeled in 2019 – fraud remains a problem in the industry.
Oceana, a nonprofit that launched a campaign to combat seafood fraud more than a decade ago, reported similar numbers: In the samples collected in their Seafood Import Monitoring Program, one in five fish tested were mislabeled.
The numbers were down but the pandemic has exacerbated the issue.
“After COVID, we’re seeing a pickup because a lot of warehouses had product in their freezers and then [restaurants and institutions] shut down, so now they’re selling what they have for whatever they can,” Applewhite explains. “We’ve seen an uptick [in species substitution] in 2021; it’s not nearly the 75 percent it was when we started but it’s close to 50 percent.”Learn more about Can Handheld DNA Testing Technology Stand Up to Seafood Fraud?.