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Seafood Labels


Labeling Danger

While purchasing wild-caught fish is the obvious healthy choice, chances are you don’t know where the fish you buy actually come from. With ineffective national labeling laws, chances are that you are not alone.

Farm-Raised vs. Wild-Caught

Wild-caught fish often pose fewer consumer health problems than most farm-raised seafood. But some longer-living wild fish do have higher levels of mercury. Most farmed carnivorous finfish, such as salmon, are raised in large cages that threaten wild-fish populations and are contaminated with chemicals that can affect human health.

Ineffective Federal Labeling

In 2005, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) developed mandatory Country Of Origin Labeling rules, which was intended to inform consumers about where seafood comes from and if it is farm-raised or wild-caught. Unfortunately, USDA did not create a strong labeling program.

Consider the following:

  • “Processed” seafood is exempt, leaving more than 50% sold in the U.S. without labels;
  • 90% of fish sellers, such as wholesale markets, are exempt; and
  • No enforcement mechanism exists and violators face paltry fines.

What’s worse, even fish that are labeled can be mislabeled. A 2005 study revealed that “wild-caught” salmon at six of eight New York City stores was actually farm-raised.

Organic Standards for Seafood?

Have you seen seafood labeled “organic” on restaurant menus, in stores and markets? Buyer beware — this “organic” probably doesn’t mean what you expect. Currently, there is no U.S. government-approved organic seafood. These products are often labeled as “organic” based on criteria set by a private certification company, or in accord with European standards. Neither of these usually equate to U.S. organic standards for other foods.

State Safeguards

Faced with non-existent and ineffective federal laws, states have implemented stronger labeling safeguards to protect public health:

  • Alaska requires the labeling of all farm-raised halibut, salmon or sablefish, even in restaurants. Alaska also requires labels for genetically-modified farmed fish.
  • Since the early 1990s, Washington State has required labeling for farm-raised salmon sold in retail and wholesale fish markets.
  • Arkansas and Louisiana require labeling for farmed catfish sold in retail and wholesale markets.

Learn More

  • General Guidelines for Buying Fish
    Food  & Water Watch recommends that consumers take the environmental impacts, socio-economic issues and consumer health implications into consideration when choosing your favorite seafood dinner. Here are our top suggestions, followed by more detailed information.
  • Shrimp Eco-Labels: What Do They Mean
    The ever-expanding shrimp industry has been devastating to the environment and coastal communities throughout many parts of the world. Recognizing this, increasingly conscious consumers are now demanding more sustainably produced shrimp. Unfortunately, the multitude and variety of labels can be confusing, leaving consumers to wonder about each label‚ meaning and credibility.