Much of the raw seafood sold in stores is contaminated or mislabeled, according to a six-month Consumer Reports investigation released today.
The study was based on 113 samples of fish and clams that were purchased in 40 randomly selected supermarkets and specialty fish shops in New York and Chicago. The group found that 34 samples were spoiled, 50 were contaminated with fecal coliforms, and eight of 20 samples of swordfish had more than the permissible level of mercury. What's more, one-third of the sample, taken from a number of different stores, was misidentified, usually as a more expensive variety.
The study contended that there were abuses in handling seafood all along the chain from the fishing vessel to the retail store. But it placed the largest share of the blame at the retail level.
"We clearly know we did not cover the whole waterfront," said Edward Groth, associate technical director of Consumers Union. "We think the look we took is big enough and reliable enough to say there is a problem."
Unlike meat and poultry, the handling of fish is largely unregulated by the federal government, and this report bolsters the contention of independent consumer advocacy groups like the Public Voice for Food and Health Policy that mandatory seafood inspection is necessary. But the federal food and Drug Administration called the findings overblown and said a case could not be made on such a small sampling in just two cities.
Nonetheless, Lee Weddig, executive vice president of the the National Fisheries Institute, a trade association of marketers and processors, acknowledged that the study was "not all that bad as an indicator of the conditions in those areas."
And Richard Lord, a consultant to the Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan who is a recognized authority on fish, said Consumers Union's assertions were justified. "You cannot contradict the report," he said.
The study, which will appear in the February issue of Consumer Reports magazine, looked at seven species: salmon, flounder, sole, catfish, swordfish, lake whitefish and clams. The study tested the fish for bacteria to determine quality and freshness.
Both Weddig and Douglas Archer, deputy director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, took issue with the bacterial standards used by Consumers Union. Their method "is not respected as a method for judging the quality of fish," Archer said.
But Groth said the standards were based on advice from leading experts on microbiology.
Spoiled fish is unlikely to make someone sick. But high levels of bacteria in fish pose the same problem that salmonella does in poultry.
"The problem is that you are getting lousy fish," said Groth. "It's an outrage but not necessarily a hazard."