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3 Seafood Companies With the Worst Food Quality Practices

The harsh realities of the seafood industry may have you reconsidering that pescatarian diet.

It's no secret that seafood has become a highly sought-after cuisine within the United States. The most recent data from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations shows that the nation's seafood consumption grew to nearly 50 pounds per capita in 2020. And, even though this amount pales in comparison to more fish-forward countries such as Iceland or even China, it's still leaps and bounds ahead of where it stood mere decades ago.

Americans have continued to dive into seafood more and more–particularly favorites such as shrimp, salmon, and even canned tuna–because of its nutritional superiority to other meats. It is also widely understood that seafood is the more sustainable and ethical choice that helps consumers bypass some of the atrocities which occur in the meat industry.

But, in reality, there are troubled waters in our seafood market as well. And the country's top commercial fishing companies continue to make waves in the industry, which have the power to cause indescribable damage to marine life, oceans, and even the humans involved.

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Unethical techniques including overfishing

A lack of set and enforced regulations is the root of most problems within the seafood industry. Because of this, fisheries and seafood companies across the globe are able to get away with illegal and irresponsible practices such as overfishing. This is when fish and other seafood are killed faster than they are able to reproduce and replenish, and The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) approximates that more than one-third of all global fish stocks are being subjected to it.

This method, as well as other harmful fishing techniques such as bottom trawling and long lining, has detrimental effects on other marine life. Many other types of fish and ocean animals including endangered turtles, whales, sharks, dolphins, and even seabirds which were not intended to be caught, often end up as bycatch. It is estimated that this bycatch accounts for an astounding 40% of sea life caught worldwide.

The ocean itself falls victim to these negligent methods as well. The seafloor is often scraped and destroyed by fishing nets. And, on top of it all, abandoned or lost fishing equipment–referred to as "ghost gear"–makes up an estimated 10% of the debris piling up in the ocean.

Seafood fraud and illegal sourcing

With about 65% of America's seafood coming in from international imports, according to Sustainable Fisheries, traceability becomes another major snag. Various reports and investigations over the years have uncovered that an unsettling amount of fish and other seafood served up by well-known restaurants or sold at supermarkets has been linked to foreign fish suppliers with a history of slave labor.

And, if that's not enough to make you skip that neighborhood fish fry, mislabeling and intentional fraud are also sickeningly common within the seafood market. Fisheries have been known to swap in lower value fish or to treat products with more water than needed in order to turn a higher profit. There is also a fair amount of deception when it comes to the origin of seafood.

These false assertions and fishy dealings are not only unethical, but can be extremely dangerous for consumers. And, it's not just a handful of bad fish in the school that are to blame. An analysis by Guardian Seascape of over 9,000 seafood products from restaurants, fisheries, and grocery stores in more than 30 countries exposed that almost 40% were mislabeled.

While it seems that most seafood companies–in America and across the globe–contribute in some way, shape, or form to the deceit in the industry, there are a few which stand out as exhibiting the absolute worst practices within the space. Let's take to the seas and find out which fish businesses have been in particularly hot water in recent years.

Chicken of the Sea

Chicken of the Sea food
Courtesy of Chicken of the Sea

As a whole, tuna is not the most sustainable category of fish to have on your plate. The typical methods used to catch and can the fish make it susceptible to both overfishing and gross mislabeling.

This, blended in with the fact that major U.S. brands in the space such as Chicken of the Sea show blatant disregard for honest and clean practices, makes for a deadly combination. The seafood company–craftily named after albacore tuna which is said to have a mild taste much like chicken–is one of the largest tuna providers in the country, but has been under the control of the largest tuna company in the world Thai Union Group since 2000.

Greenpeace has referred to Chicken of the Sea as "one of the most destructive canned tuna brands in the United States for both our oceans and industry workers." The company, along with other Thai Union subsidiaries, has historically been known for deploying harmful fishing methods such as long lining and the use of fish aggregating devices (FADs)–both of which are destructive to the surrounding environment and can lead to copious amounts of bycatch.

But, what's most disturbing is Thai Union's, and subsequently Chicken of the Sea's, connections to slave labor. The Associated Press uncovered this human rights abuse during an investigation back in 2015. The article reports that thousands of fishermen in the Thai fishing industry were trapped in unsanitary and dangerous conditions, forced to peel and prepare shrimp.

These tainted exports eventually made their way to U.S. markets, served at restaurants such as Olive Garden and Red Lobster and stocked on store shelves under the Chicken of the Sea name.


starkist company
Courtesy of StarKist

If you thought reaching for a can of Starkist tuna would weigh less on your conscience, think again. There really does seem to be something in the water within the U.S. tuna industry, and StarKist is swimming in its own sea of negligence and wrongdoings.

StarKist–owned by South Korean company Dongwon Industries–has faced multiple allegations relating specifically to its operations in American Samoa. In 2010, the FDA cited "serious violations" at the company's facility and referred to its canned and pouched tuna packed on the territory as "adulterated," according to Food Safety News. StarKist later denied the FDA's request to inspect further and obtain copies of records.

StarKist was additionally fined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2019 for violating its environmental agreement in American Samoa. The company was cited for continuing to discharge wastewater into the Pago Pago harbor after being ordered to reduce water pollution in the area.

Recently, the tuna brand also faced a class action lawsuit for labeling its products as "dolphin safe," which the plaintiffs assert is not the case. And, just last year in 2022, StarKist pled guilty and was subjected to a $100 million fine for canned tuna price fixing, according to Reuters.

With all this taken into consideration, it's no wonder that Greenpeace has labeled StarKist as the least sustainable and ethical tuna choice among 13 other U.S. brands, specifically calling out the company for its ocean destruction and asserting that none of its byproducts can be identified as ocean safe.

Sea to Table

sea to table company
Courtesy of Sea To Table

Some seafood companies hide behind smoke and mirrors of supposed sustainability and high quality practices. But, the reality of their operations looks much different.

Sea to Table is a seafood supplier and subscription service based out of New York which claims to source only wild-caught fish from small, local fishermen. However, an investigation by the Associated Press found this to be untrue, revealing that portions of the company's products were actually farmed, illegally caught, or even sourced from international suppliers.

"Preliminary DNA tests suggested some of its yellowfin tuna likely came from the other side of the world, and reporters traced the company's supply chain to migrant fishermen in foreign waters who described labor abuses, poaching and the slaughter of sharks, whales and dolphins," the AP reports.

According to accounts from the National Fisherman, former Sea to Table employees had flagged this mislabeling and fraud in years past. But, nothing was done and the company continued to press forward with its original business model in order to sustain growth.

Santa Barbara fisherman Eric Hodge, who had considered a partnership with Sea to Table, revealed his own thoughts after learning about the company's illegal fishing habits and sketchy supply chain. "Honestly, they know. I just don't think they care," he explained to the AP. "They are making money on every shipment, and they are not going to ask questions."

Megan Hageman
Megan is a freelance writer based in Columbus, Ohio. Read more about Megan