Tainted Tuna: Why Food Poisoning from Fish Is No Fluke

Food poisoning fish
Food poisoning fish

When 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.

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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.

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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.