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Column: It’s Bait and Switch on Your Dinner Plate

What are you eating, really? If you’ve been following the news about Europe’s horsemeat scandal — and how could you not, with new developments springing up seemingly every day — you know that consumers who thought that they were buying beef and pork have actually been buying horseflesh. Authorities have found horsemeat in everything from burgers and frozen lasagna to Swedish meatballs.

But that’s Europe’s problem, right? Not so fast. A similar food-labeling scandal is brewing here at home, this one involving fish. It’s raising red flags — and it should make all of us think twice about what, or whom, we are putting on our plates.

A study just released by the ocean-conservation group Oceana has “uncovered widespread seafood fraud across the United States.” One-third of the more than 1,200 fish samples that Oceana bought from restaurants, supermarkets and sushi bars and DNA-tested were found to be mislabeled. According to the study, premium red snapper is almost never red snapper. “White tuna” is more often escolar, a species that has garnered the unforgettable nickname the “Ex-Lax fish” (more on that in a minute). “Wild” or “king” salmon is often actually cheaper farmed Atlantic salmon.

This pervasive fish fraud affects more than consumers’ purses and palates. It also poses a real health risk.

In what Oceana calls “one of the most egregious swaps,” tilefish — a species that often contains dangerous levels of mercury — is substituted for halibut and red snapper. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns pregnant women, children and other vulnerable populations not to eat tilefish.

High levels of mercury in the body can cause symptoms as diverse as fatigue, depression, difficulty concentrating and headaches. In severe cases, neurological damage can result. A study released in January by Maine’s Biodiversity Research Institute found that fish flesh from around the world is regularly contaminated with mercury levels that exceed human-health guidelines. But because both mercury pollution and fish supplies are global — 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported — and because, as we now know, mislabeling is common, how can consumers avoid eating tainted fish?

Oceana’s study also revealed that 84 percent of all “white tuna” samples were really escolar. This fish, a deep-sea bottom-feeder, is full of wax esters (similar to castor or mineral oil) that are not digestible by humans, and eating it can cause severe gastrointestinal distress. There’s a reason why it’s called the Ex-Lax fish. Escolar has been banned outright in Italy and Japan, and several other countries, including Canada, require that it come with warning labels.

But for the fish, none of this really matters. Whether they are tuna or tilapia, farmed or wild-caught, “sustainable” or not, all fish feel pain and they suffer horribly on the journey from sea to supermarket.

When fish are dragged out of their ocean homes in huge nets (along with “non-target” victims such as dolphins and turtles), their gills often collapse, their eyes bulge out of their heads and their swim bladders burst because of the sudden pressure change. Farmed fish suffer from stress, infections and parasites as a result of crowded, filthy and unnatural living conditions. And since many of the most popular species of factory-farmed fish are carnivores, fish must still be caught in the wild to feed fish on farms.

Since the horsemeat scandal broke, many consumers in Europe have stopped buying meat altogether and have switched to eating vegetarian meals. Anyone concerned about their own health (or animal welfare) should do the same, no matter where they live. Going vegetarian reduces your risk of cancer, heart disease, obesity and many other ills. And while consuming mislabeled meat or fish can put you at risk, you’re in little danger if you mistake a kumquat for a kiwi.

Paula Moore is a senior writer for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals Foundation. Information about PETA’s funding may be found at www.peta.org/about/numbers.asp.