Seafood Bait ‘n Switch: Do You Know What You’re Eating?

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Whenever I order seafood out at a restaurant, my wife Rachel will hold her breath while I study the plate and validate the order.  If it smells fishy, I’ll send it back.  If it looks like something other than what I ordered, I’ll question the wait staff.  If it then tastes like something other than what ordered, I’ll ask to speak with the manager.  That’s when the fun begins, and another chapter of seafood “bait and switch” goes in the book of restaurant fraud.

I find intentional mislabeling (a.k.a. species substitution or “fish fraud”) happens more routinely than it should, not only in “fast food” seafood establishments but in “high-end” restaurants and seafood markets.  While this behavior is not only illegal, and results in cheating the consumer, it can also lead to significant safety risks where species known to be toxic can be substituted for non-toxic varieties – high mercury content and other toxic chemicals found in certain farm raised and wild varieties.

According to Forbes Magazine, “cheaper species of fish are sold for more expensive and desirable ones routinely at retail fish markets, in restaurants, and especially in sushi places” (i.e. where escolar is substituted for white tuna).

In another study, the conservation group Oceana tested over 400 DNA samples of fish from 277 locations in the United States and found roughly 21% of the fish was not what it was called on the label or menu.

Why would a restaurant or purveyor of seafood do this?  My fist theory bestows benefit of the doubt.  Tracking fish from origin to table can be daunting, particularly when importing products from remote locations around the globe.  Let’s just say that a lot can go wrong from origin to plate.

Fish mislabeling can occur at every stage of the chain from landing to destination.  Removing heads, tails, fins, and turning into filets can sometimes muddy the waters while disguising the product.  Names of fish can also be confusing. Take Chilean sea bass for example.  Chilean sea bass is a Patagonian toothfish or Antarctic toothfish, more of a cod than a bass. And grouper is just a market name for a species of fish in the Serranidae family, which also includes “sea basses” (more confusion).  Then there are the wide variety of species (i.e. snapper), where there are at least 125 different types, not just the widely-known and highly-priced version – the American Red Snapper.

My second theory is “price-ability” – the price and availability of authentic fish.  The market price of fish begins at the dock where availability leads to supply and demand.  Ultimately the expense to harvest, seasonal demand, yield, supply, or lack thereof, is passed down to buyer.  Notably, there is little profit margin to begin with when selling fish, so what’s the harm in offering something cheaper but similar in texture and taste, particularly when it’s disguised with salty condiments and buttery sauces?

One common fish used to masquerade more expensive varieties is Asian pangasius (or ponga) which is frequently passed off as everything from catfish to sole to flounder to grouper, as the appearance, taste and texture is remarkably similar.  “There are dozens of cases of pangasius fraud,” said Kimberly Warner, the senior scientist at Oceana. “Millions of dollars and many businesses have been implicated in this particular kind of seafood swapping at all levels of the supply chain.”

Another theory is laziness. Sisco delivers fish “Fresh from Florida,” or more specifically from China or Mexico, direct to your door, reasonably priced, in nicely packaged containers, alleviating the hassle and inconvenience of storing whole fish and learning proper filleting techniques. Packaged fish from China or Mexico, that closely resembles local species, is sold routinely as local “grouper sandwiches or bites” at many Florida restaurants.

So, what to do to avoid fish fraud?Ask questions. If the market or restaurant is unable to answer specific questions (i.e. “what type of grouper or snapper is this and where did it come from?), then make a different choice. Choose whole fish options if available.  It’s much harder to mislabel a whole fish, and other factors will be easier to distinguish, such as quality and freshness. Consider price.  If the price is too good to be true, then it is likely mislabeled.  Remember that popular fish such as tuna, snapper, salmon and grouper are the most commonly mislabeled species, so be extra careful when choosing those. When shopping in retail markets, try to buy traceable seafood where the name of the species, where and how it was caught or farmed, and where it was processed, is available and is maintained throughout the entire supply chain. Finally, become a savvy consumer –next time you purchase seafood make smart choices with confidence – it’s your right to be informed and receive what you intend to purchase.

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