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Increasing Customer Confidence in Wholesale Seafood Authenticity Amid Bay Area Mislabeling Concerns

Posted by on Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Source commonly mislabeled fish, like red snapper, only from a vendor you can trust. Image source: Flickr CC user Louisiana Sea Grant College Program

A more recent study showed that the Bay Area still has problems with mislabeled seafood, though it’s not the only city, by far, with these issues.

As a seafood vendor in the Bay Area, it is imperative that my customers trust me to source the most sustainable seafood we can find–and that the seafood we sell is exactly what we say it is. So how does this mislabeling happen, and how can we reassure our Bay Area customers that the seafood we sell is what it purports to be?

You may remember a study from the Oceana institute in 2013 that showed that 38% of seafood sold in Northern California was mislabeled–I definitely do, because I remember going into one of my favorite Bay Area sushi restaurants around that time and wondering, with every piece of fish that I ate, “Is this really snapper? Is this albacore actually albacore?” A more recent study also showed that the Bay Area still has problems with mislabeled seafood, though it’s not the only city, by far, with these issues.

As a seafood vendor in the Bay Area, it is imperative that my customers trust me to source the most sustainable seafood we can find–and that the seafood we sell is exactly what we say it is. So how does this mislabeling happen, and how can we reassure our Bay Area customers that the seafood we sell is what it purports to be?

Studies and Effects

It is impossible for the customer to know where mislabeling happens–whether the misinformation stems from the seafood vendor they visit on their way home from work, or the wholesaler, or the fishermen themselves. While grocery stores and sushi restaurants are the most likely to sell counterfeit fish, the Oceana study suggested that mislabeling likely happens higher up in the supply chain.

Mislabeling doesn’t just violate the basic consumer principles of “getting what you pay for”; it can have health repercussions as well. Escolar often masquerades as white tuna, but escolar can cause gastrointestinal distress for some people. Additionally, king mackerel, sometimes passed off as grouper, has a higher mercury content, something which certain populations (like pregnant women and children) might be trying to avoid.

What Are the Implications for the Bay Area?

Here in the Bay Area we’re lucky to have an abundance of unique local fish–it’s pretty tough for anything else to masquerade as whole Dungeness crab, and local lingcod often has distinctively blue flesh. But what about rockfish and snapper? The Oceana study found that rockfish was substituted for snapper 38 times during the course of the study.

The general public is getting more and more food savvy–there are even viral Facebook videos that discuss seafood labeling and other issues like overfishing and general sustainability. Educated customers protested unsustainable choices at Whole Foods, which convinced the retailer to pull those options from its seafood cases. Some of my seafood industry friends who have moved to the Bay Area are continually surprised by how passionate and knowledgeable customers are about seafood here–they know about seafood sustainability, mislabeling, and other issues, and want to make sure they are getting exactly what they pay for. As seafood vendors, we need to provide the seafood shopping experience they expect.

What Can We Do to Educate and Reassure Customers?

The Seafood Industry Research Fund has announced that they have funded research for a study to develop easier ways of identifying fish through DNA testing. It will be interesting to see how efficient the method is, and how we can use it to help our customers feel more certain about their seafood choices. In the meantime, here are a few ways you can boost your customers’ confidence in the authenticity of your seafood:

  • Source fish that are commonly mislabeled, such as red snapper, only from a reputable wholesaler that you have a good working relationship with. Be open with your customers about how you trust your wholesaler to provide you with exactly the product you have ordered.
  • Display Seafood Watch labels on the name tags of fish in the case, which helps the customer understand that that seafood they are purchasing is sustainable. Though Seafood Watch can’t regulate to ensure the fish aren’t counterfeit, the organization’s certification process makes it less likely that the fish isn’t what it says it is.
  • Train your staff to know where all of your fish comes from. Ask your seafood wholesaler to give you details on how and where you seafood was caught–a good vendor should be more than happy to do this for you.
  • Feature one fish per week, perhaps with a special price. Talk about the notable characteristics of that fish, and even include those details on a poster or whiteboard in direct view of your seafood case. This will help educate your customers and make them feel more confident that the fish they are choosing is the actual fish you are selling, and help them identify the fish in the future.
  • Continue to develop a relationship with your regulars. The more they think of you as a trusted source for seafood knowledge as well as the seafood itself, the more they’ll understand that you have their best interests in mind, and are striving for total accuracy in labeling. By staying educated and up-to-date about the issues around mislabeling, as well as being open with customers about how it happens and how often it happens, you can earn your customers’ trust.

At Pucci Foods, we are devoted to bringing you exactly what you need–fresh, sustainable seafood that is correctly labeled and impeccably sourced. We have a deep commitment to integrity and ethical practices, and we only work with fishermen, distributors, and other seafood sources who operate the same way. Talk to us about our seafood sourcing practices and about placing your order for authentic, responsibly-sourced seafood.