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12 News Defenders: Filthy Fish

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Think back to the last time you bought seafood. Are you sure you got what you paid for? A recent study shows there are some stores selling fish, which is not what it claims to be on the label. Some of it is full of chemicals. And that means it could make you sick.

At Destin Connection in Montgomery, owner David Scott says you don't need to worry. He gets his seafood shipped in fresh from the Gulf of Mexico. But not all stores are like his.

"People will call here and when we tell them that Grouper is $15.95/pound, they say, 'Oh I can get it for $6.95 somewhere else,'" Scott told us. "I quickly laugh and tell them, you're not getting Grouper."

So if it's not Grouper, what is it?

Well it could be cheaper, less desirable foreign fish. And it could be raised in countries that don't have the same kind of regulations as the U.S.

State chemist Joe Basile has seen it first-hand.

"If you knew what I knew, you would only be eating domestic product," he warned.

Basile tests fish for the Alabama Department of Agriculture. He says he has found all kinds of chemicals in foreign fish, including fungicides & antibiotics, which are outlawed by the FDA.

"They have these filthy conditions in these countries where this seafood is being farm raised," he explained. "And in order to combat these filthy conditions, they're having to use these illegal antibiotics, which can harm people."

Basile says the FDA considers the antibiotics carcinogens.

The problem appears to be widespread. A recent survey shows 90% of the fish consumed in the U.S. is imported. And 1/3rd of it is mislabeled.

The study was conducted by the 'Oceana' group and determined fish claiming to be Tuna and Snapper was the most commonly mislabeled. Researchers say the Tuna was really Escolar, which can cause digestive problems in some people. Everything from Perch to Tilapia and Rockfish was substituted for the Snapper.

[WEB EXTRA: Read the Oceana study]

"It happens a lot," said state inspector Ray Latham.

Latham also works for the Alabama Department of Agriculture. It's his job to inspect food stores for mislabeled fish and other irregularities. But he admits that he and his fellow inspectors can't be in every store all the time.

"There are 13 of us covering the whole state of Alabama, doing inspections each day."

Officials say most of the mislabeled fish in Alabama has been found in food distribution warehouses, making it more difficult to pinpoint which stores may have received it.

And the fish is usually already filleted and frozen, meaning it's hard to identify by sight.

So in the end, it's up to the consumer to ask questions. Respectable vendors like David Scott will know the answers. And you'll know that you're getting what you paid for.

[WEB EXTRA: More tips for choosing seafood]

Here are some questions to keep in mind.

  • What is the seafood's country of origin?

The FDA requires most stores to provide this information. If the clerk won't say or seems unsure, don't buy it.

  • If the fish is from an Asian country, was it wild caught or farm raised?

It's the farm-raised fish from countries like Vietnam that can be dangerous.

  • What is the price?

If it's too good to be true, the fish is probably not what it says on the label.

While you're shopping, if you ever find anything suspicious, you're encouraged to report it to the state agriculture department. Inspectors ask that you call immediately, so they can visit the store before it re-stocks.

Copyright 2013. WSFA 12 News. All Rights Reserved.

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