Tainted Tuna: Why Food Poisoning from Fish Is No Fluke

Food poisoning fishWhen it comes to eating healthily, fish has a great reputation. Low in saturated fat, high in vitamins, it's known as one of the healthiest meats around. But recent studies show that mislabeling, food poisoning, overuse of antibiotics and a host of other factors may be transforming fish into the most dangerous thing on the menu.

If you're a fish eater and you keep an eye on the news, you already know that the "red snapper" special at your local restaurant is probably mislabeled. For years, restaurants have been substituting cheaper, more common species like tilapia for the famed red snapper. Last year, however, DNA analyses showed that the problem is more widespread than anyone suspected: In Los Angeles, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, studies showed that 100 percent of restaurants were serving cheaper fish and mislabeling them as red snapper. Similarly, white tuna, yellowtail, Dover sole and wild-caught salmon were also often substituted for other species.

Most of the time, price gouging is the only harm that comes from such mislabeling. Sometimes, however, the danger might be a bit higher. Recently, the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention noted that much of the alleged "white tuna" served in sushi restaurants may actually be escolar, also known as "snake mackerel." A cheap fish that may cause severe food poisoning with, shall we say, explosive results, escolar is banned in some countries. While the U.S. permits it, the FDA has issued warnings about its consumption. In the agency's words:

The FDA advises against the sale of the fish in intrastate/interstate commerce, and requests that seafood manufacturers/processors should inform potential buyers/sellers, etc. of the purgative effect associated with the consumption of these fish.

But even food poisoning is minor compared to some of the dangers that lurk in the seafood section of the menu.
Earlier this week, Mother Jones magazine published a broad, sweeping analysis of some of the threats associated with imported fish. The seafood that lands on America's tables contains a witch's brew of potential hazards, ranging from carcinogens to antibiotic-resistant bacteria to salmonella. Not surprisingly, almost half of foodborne illness outbreaks caused by imported foods can be traced to seafood.

It isn't hard to figure out how tainted seafood finds its way onto your plate. In addition to permitting aquaculture operations to use drugs that are banned by other countries, and permits the sale of species that other countries don't, the U.S. only minimally oversees imports. A Johns Hopkins study shows that the U.S. inspects a miniscule 2 percent of the seafood that comes into the country. By comparison, Japan inspects 18 percent and the European Union inspects 50 percent. With such weak oversight, it's not surprising that so many of America's seafood problems are being resolved in its emergency rooms, rather than on its docks.

Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

Increase your money and finance knowledge from home

Building Credit from Scratch

Start building credit...now.

View Course »

Intro to different retirement accounts

What does it mean to have a 401(k)? IRA?

View Course »

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum


Filter by:

I wonder if the last time I had sushi and got violently ill, if this may have been the cause. ??????

January 27 2013 at 10:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Don't like fish never eat it .

January 27 2013 at 3:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

tainted tuna...poisoning...fluke...you can't make this stuff up folks...lol

January 27 2013 at 10:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

In the bigger picture....fish is but one way the business world cannibalizes our population for it's financial gain...that's all it is. Everything from the bovine diseases, to this, hiorsemeat, and things like ethylene glycol are the workings of a system gone corrupt. 21st Century America....nice job on the part of our political system....time to stand up and say not just no, but H..L NO

January 27 2013 at 9:38 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

like fish

January 26 2013 at 10:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Many people hate being human. This is a fish loving story. Where are the poisons in fish found? How about the organs that keep the poisons out of the meat? Is that where the poisons are? I talked to severa bioligists in several "don't eat the fish here" places. Some of the toxins were found only on the outside of some bottom feeders. Since the toxins were on the fish, it was considered dangerous. Nothing was found in the edible portions of the fish. If you think the human species is a detriment to the earth? Why are we here? To experience life, to learn, to choose good from bad, to do the best we can and as a person. Set a good example.

January 26 2013 at 9:52 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I've have seen a lot of insipid headlines. This one ranks up there.

January 26 2013 at 7:35 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

My ex-wife has tainted tuna

January 26 2013 at 5:23 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Aside from catching your own and being able to identify it, there's no way even a savvy fish lover can tell some of these fish apart. Some fish markets sell whole fish. That helps. Or they 'certify' the type of fish sold, so there's a little less doubt. However, when even expensive restaurants get 'snookered' by unscrupulous distributors you still don't know. And with some types of fish the price difference is huge.

January 26 2013 at 5:04 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

if you can't tell snapper from tilapia you shouldn't be in a seafood restaurant - it is legal to sell many species under one lable - Cod isn't just Cod - the Pacific Cod is not the much superior Atlantiv Cod - Gulf Red snapper isn't the same as red snapper, etc - very few reputable sea food places substitute vheap fish for the real thing because their customers would catch them - don't be afraid to ask them what something really is - Pollack isn't Cod - and an indistingushable group Walleyed Pike (Walleye), Pike Perch and Zander are prety much the same fish but the Walleyed Pike( Walleye) is the one from North American and can easily be substituted for with the European fish - if Walleye is too good a deal it is probably Zander - again ask

January 26 2013 at 9:44 AM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply