Hey…Where’s The Fish?

This article was originally published in Urner Barry’s Reporter Quarterly Magazine.

Picture this.  You’re strolling through the frozen seafood aisle of your grocery store in search of some delicious, nutritious seafood.  You find two products side by side, but there’s a problem. The label tells you nothing.  You can’t tell which product is made with the healthiest animal protein on the planet or which contains a mix of plants and vegetables that are shaped to look like seafood. Why is that? 

Vegan, plant-based and vegetarian versions of “meat” products have been popular for some time.  The veggie burger, “tofurky,” and meatless “chick’n” strips can be found at grocery stores nationally. Now, so called plant-based seafoods parade around as “vegan shrimp,” or “Toona,” seeking footholds in the marketplace – and confusing customers.

Many of these highly processed, plant-based brands market themselves as “seafood alternatives” as well as claim to have the same nutritional benefits as the seafood products they mimic.  They don’t.  In fact, they often lack key nutrients such as protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Let’s not mince facts.  These “alternative” products violate Food and Drug Administration (FDA) labeling requirements.  The FDA’s existing requirements state that nutritionally inferior substitutes must be labeled as “imitation.”  Mislabeling food is a serious infraction and can harm consumers both by depriving them of expected nutritional benefits and by possibly exposing them to food allergies.  The FDA statutes state labels that are misleading in any way are regarded as “misbranded.”  

National Fisheries Institute (NFI) members – the nation’s largest seafood producers – properly label and ensure that thousands of commercial seafood products meet FDA’s strict requirements.  For instance, blended seafood products made primarily with fish protein are known as – and lawfully labeled – “crab flavored seafood, made with surimi, a fully cooked fish protein” or “imitation crab.”  

This is one blunt example of how actual seafood purveyors are required to label a product made with actual fish protein as “imitation.”  At the same time, the FDA refuses to enforce such a requirement on highly processed, plant-based alternative products designed and marketed to imitate fish without containing any fish protein.  Let’s be honest here, just because you spell tuna as “toona” doesn’t mean it’s fish.

A study by consumer research firm FoodMinds showed that about 40 percent of consumers believed plant-based imitations contain actual seafood.  Up to 60 percent thought the products had similar nutritional content as real fish.  Still, fake-seafood producers are resisting more accurate labeling, and without any evidence claiming that customers know what they are getting.

To push consumer confusion further, companies offering plant-based seafood imitations continue to double down on the vegan fish nutrition claim.  Some are bold enough to claim a highly-processed vegetable mash that attempts to imitate raw tuna is healthier than real tuna. Are vegetables nutritious food?  Sure.  Do they come close to the complex offering of protein, vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids in tuna?  Any reputable doctor or dietitian will tell you the answer is, no.

Americans simply don’t consume nearly enough seafood. About 90% do not meet the U.S. Dietary Guidelines directive to eat seafood twice per week. Any suggestion that consumers should steer clear of seafood for nutrition reasons further exacerbates this problem. 

Plant-based products are innovative, and we hope they will contribute to feeding a growing world.  They have a place on menus and in stores. However, the nation’s lead food safety regulator for seafood has a fundamental obligation to protect and inform American families about the food they eat.  Banners like “Vegan Lobster” appear to tell shoppers what’s not in the package.

The solution is clear: FDA must enforce its existing labeling requirements. Labels must follow existing requirements and meet the same labeling standards imposed on actual seafood products.  

If seafood products must meet FDA requirements to distinguish among different fish, then surely a product made of konjac powder, pea starch, and fenugreek should not be allowed to be labeled, “smoked salmon.” American consumers deserve factual and clear labels on the foods they buy, and they deserve this now. Not years from now.