08/05/2011 09:39 EDT | Updated 10/05/2011 05:12 EDT

Mislabeled Fish Shows Seafood Industry's Floundering Conscience

Consumers are being misled about the seafood they buy, with negative impact on their wallets, marine conservation and human health.

As a professional angler I have the ability to identify the species of fish I'm served, something I put to use a while back, when I was enjoying a luncheon with a girlfriend at a fine Italian restaurant on Bloor Street in Toronto, Canada.

When the halibut I had ordered arrived I could immediately tell it was a snapper, a fish I personally do not eat. When I pointed this out to the server she explained that they were out of halibut and decided to give me what they had available.

It was not what I ordered and they didn't adjust the price to reflect the lower quality fish. Alarmed by how often this happens, I decided I needed to tell someone and try to do something about this. I started by calling Health Canada. Six departments later, I found a helpful ear, who informed me that "this is just one of a number of problems with our seafood supply and that we are working on the problem." Time will tell.

Recent studies by researchers in North America and Europe have found seafood products to be mislabeled one-third of the time. Seafood is extremely sensitive to proper handling and refrigeration. Eighty-four per cent of the 1,700-plus varieties of seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported while only two per cent is inspected by the FDA. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency provides all federal inspection services related to food in Canada but despite these governing bodies, trade and traceability continues to be a major problem for illegal, unreported and unregulated fisheries in particular.

It is estimated that of the 76 million Americans who contract food born illnesses annually, 18 to 20 per cent of those illnesses are related to seafood. Go to any restaurant and try to identify what seafood they are eating, the country of origin, production methods, how it was caught or how many times it was frozen and you will understand why this problem is only getting worse.

One can ask, how it is even possible when studies show 70 to 80 per cent of red snapper sold in the U.S. are replaced with channel catfish or snapper.

Atlantic cod is often oil fish, scallops are swapped for less expensive skate wings and lobster becomes scampi, according to the study "Trade Secrets: Renaming and mislabeling of seafood." If you order a steak at a high-end restaurant and the waiter serves you a low quality burger instead, you would be outraged and send it back immediately. So we should be just as mad when they do the bait and switch with our seafood.

A three-year study from the University of Washington was conducted to study mislabeling of fish in restaurants across the United States. In the Puget Sound area, it was found that restaurants put wild-caught Pacific salmon on the menu while serving the less expensive and farm raised Atlantic salmon. Farmed salmon contain higher concentrations of contaminants like growth hormone and antibiotics than wild salmon.

In my opinion, the problems of mislabeling have dire consequences because of bacteria, and viruses. Like so many, I have also ended up sick as a result of spoiled seafood. The seafood industry, it seems, really has quite the floundering conscience.