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Survey Finds That Fish Are Often Not What Label Says

By KIRK JOHNSON

ECONOMY

Many Europeans are fretting these days over horse meat, and whether it might have adulterated their shepherd’s pie. Over here, it’s all about the red snapper.

That tempting seafood delight glistening on the ice at the market, or sizzling at the restaurant table in its aromatic jacket of garlic and ginger? It may not be at all what you think, or indeed even close, according to a big new study of fish bought and genetically tested in 12 parts of the country — in restaurants, markets and sushi bars — by a nonprofit ocean protection group, Oceana.

In the 120 samples labeled red snapper and bought for testing nationwide, for example, 28 different species of fish were found, including 17 that were not even in the snapper family, according to the study, which was released Thursday.

The study also contained surprises about where consumers were most likely to be misled — sushi bars topped the list in every city studied — while grocery stores were most likely to be selling fish honestly. Restaurants ranked in the middle.

Part of the problem, said the study’s chief author, Kimberly Warner, is that there are quite simply a lot of fish in the sea, and many of them look alike. Over all, the study found that about one-third of the 1,215 fish samples bought, from 2010 to 2012, were mislabeled.

“Even a relatively educated consumer couldn’t look at a whole fish and say, ‘I’m sure that’s a red snapper and not lane snapper,’ ” she said.

Geographically, the study had bad news for residents of Southern California, land of the midnight sushi. They were more likely than residents in any of the other sampled regions to be eating something other than what they had been told. About 52 percent of the samples bought and sent for testing turned out to be something else.

Salmon-crazed Seattle, by contrast, was tied with cod-country Boston as having the lowest deception rates. Still, almost one in five fish samples were wrongly labeled.

Some types of fish fared worse in different places. In New York, for example, fish that was not really tuna was being passed off as tuna in 94 percent of the samples taken, the study said.

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