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Fishy Business: How two Boston Globe reporters tackled fish labeling

fish business

A screenshot from the Boston Globe's "Fishy Business" series.

Jenn Abelson and Beth Daley of the Boston Globe recently won a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers for their “Fishy Business” series. The series looked at restaurants and grocery stores mislabeling fish, often resulting in consumers overpaying. They found examples such as white tuna that was actually escolar, “an oily, cheaper species banned in Japan because it can make people sick,” and a $23 flounder fillet that was actually a Vietnamese catfish usually priced under $4 a pound.

A story about a seafood supplier who was convicted of mislabeling fish sold at a national restaurant chain piqued Jenn’s and Beth’s interest, Jenn says. They decided to see how prevalent deceptive labeling was in Massachusetts.

In part one of the series, they write:

“The Globe collected fish from 134 restaurants, grocery stores, and seafood markets from Leominster to Provincetown, and hired a laboratory in Canada to conduct DNA testing on the samples. Analyses by the DNA lab and other scientists showed that 87 of 183 were sold with the wrong species name – 48 percent.

The results underscore the dramatic lack of oversight in the seafood business compared with other food industries such as meat and poultry. Nationally, mislabeled fish is estimated to cost diners and the industry up to hundreds of millions of dollars annually, according to the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group.”

Sending fish to a lab seems as simple as stuffing the fish in an ice-packed cooler and waiting for the results. But that wasn’t the case for Jenn and Beth.

First, they had to buy 183 fish samples from 134 merchants across Massachusetts, Jenn says. They set up a lab in the Globe’s basement to test the samples. Using sanitized scalpels, Jenn and Beth put small pieces of fish in separate ethanol-filled test tubes. They watched closely to ensure they followed proper sanitizing procedures and that they put the correct fish in the proper test tube. Then they took pictures of each fish sample and created a database with the image, test tube specimen and fish sample.

fish

A screenshot from the Boston Globe's "Fishy Business" series.

The samples were shipped to the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph, which is home to a 26-nation consortium called the International Barcode of Life and uses a novel method of genetic analysis to quickly and inexpensively identify species, Jenn says. After the samples shipped, Jenn visited the Institute to ensure the samples arrived and took video of the process while a hired photographer took still images.

Today’s Tip: Reporters should verify data results using additional sources and researchers.

“DNA analysis is not the stuff of CSI, where a match is a match and there are no ambiguities,” Jenn says. “In fact, misidentifications can occur because of wrongly entered information in public DNA reference libraries or because some species of fish are closely related.”

Once they had DNA results, they compared them to a FDA list of allowed market names.

“But this seemingly easy task was a minefield because the FDA allows some fish to be named one thing in one area of the country and not another,” Jenn says. “We spent weeks going back and forth with federal officials, fishermen, and seafood experts to understand what was wrongly labeled.”

To ensure the integrity of the data, they sent some specimens to a different lab for DNA testing, and provided some of the data to a researcher to analyze and validate the results.

 

 

About the Author

Rosland Gammon is a former business journalist turned college instructor. Her newsroom experience includes reporting for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and reporting and editing at Bloomberg News. Gammon currently teaches communications at Alverno College in Milwaukee. Follow her daily posts. | E-mail: Rosland Gammon

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