by Marion Nestle
Dec 17 2012

Fish: the Wild West of the supermarket

Last week, the New York Times reported—and not for the first time—that fish are routinely mislabeled.

When I was doing the research for What to Eat (my book about food issues in which I used supermarkets as an organizing device), it was clear that the fish aisle was the Wild West of food marketing.  Anything goes.

Unless you are an expert, it’s hard to tell one fish from another.  Many fish sellers, alas, are not expert either.

I divided the issues into dilemmas and quandaries.

The dilemmas:

  • Farmed v. wild
  • Methymercury v. omega-3’s
  • PCBs v. omega-3’s

The quandaries:

  • Country-of-origin labels
  • Artificial seafood (surimi)
  • Artificial color (salmon dyes)
  • “Organic”
  • “Not-GMO”

The chapter I called “The Fish-Labeling Quandaries” begins:

Just about any American supermarket has a fish counter offering fresh, frozen, whole, and filleted seafood, almost certain to be bewildering in variety, quality, and price.   The signs that accompany the fish do not always help much.   Like other fresh foods, fish do not come with Nutrition Facts labels, but sellers are supposed to tell you what species are, whether they were previously frozen.  Beginning in spring 2005, they also were supposed to tell you what country the fish came from and whether they were farmed….

A nearby…supermarket…offered a refrigerator case packed with plastic-wrapped seafood…Although the wrappings were clearly marked with the species, weight, and price, none said where or how the fish had been raised.  In answer to a question about whether a piece of salmon was farm-raised or wild, a clerk replied, “I really have no idea where this thing comes from.”

…How anyone can make a reasonable choice about which fish to buy on the basis of these seemingly arbitrary and confusing labels is a mystery to me.  Better labeling would certainly help, particularly of the country of origin, but you might also want to know what the fish signs really mean when they tell you that seafood is “artificial,” “color-added,” “organic,” or, for that matter, “not genetically modified.”   By this time, you can guess that each of these labeling terms takes you into matters that do not precisely qualify as fish dilemmas, but do present any number of what I think are fish quandaries—puzzles you have to deal with when deciding what fish to buy.

According to the Times, fish sellers either lie or are clueless about what they are selling.

What to do?

My advice: find a fish seller you can trust.

But, as I put it then and the Times article confirms, “it is not always easy or possible to know whether your fishmonger is trustworthy.”

Catch your own?

  • Scott

    Dr. Nestle,

    I read your book and, while I don’t remember if you commented on this specifically, I was wondering what your opinion is on the humble canned sardine?

    I eat them and occasionally allow my 3.5 year old daughter to do the same as they are low on the food chain.


  • brad

    The strangest thing to me is “organic.” We have this here in my city: you can buy “organic Atlantic salmon.” Presumably that means it’s farmed salmon fed organic feed. But I can only assume that the negative impacts on the environment of organic farmed salmon are no different from those of other farmed salmon, so I continue to choose wild Pacific salmon.

  • Pellie Moulante

    Because of the confusion and the fact I don’t want to contribute to end of all life in the oceans, I have given up on imported fish except for sardines and I only buy farm-raised trout from a more-or-less local source.

    Trout is quite yummy.

  • Lisa Anthony

    I have given up fish for my family after the BP Deepwater Oil Spill. I believe the massive oil and dispersants have damaged the food chain. I am trying to start a aquaponics for a local fresh grown fish.

  • All fish are good in taste and it is a rich natural food as compared to other Diets.

  • Jayne

    Thank you for pointing out this huge dilemma. It is not an easy question. As a local Slow Food organizer we have had a number of panel discussions regarding this issue. I eat way less fish than I desire.

  • The only fish I buy nowadays is tuna from American Tuna company, which uses the line and pole technique to catch smaller tuna (less mercury). I buy a case at a time directly from the company.

    I think that’s the approach we’ll have to take in the future: go directly to a trusted source, and be willing to change your eating habits to ensure you’re making the best purchase choices.