If youve ever sampled sushi in the Sacramento area, chances are the seafood industrys caught you in some bait and switch.
That white tuna just might be escolar otherwise known as snake mackerel infamous for causing digestive distress. And the red snapper? Thats one of the most commonly mislabeled forms of fish, often showing up on the dinner plate as an inferior (and cheaper) rockfish or tilapia.
No wonder Nguyen Pham keeps a keen eye when he goes out for sushi. Phams the proprietor of Sunh Fish, a popular local seafood supplier, and quickly can spot the difference between actual white tuna and escolar, as well as other lesser fishes that get passed off as premium products.
Its a hugely prevalent problem, Pham said. Everybodys been duped. If you order white tuna and it comes out the color of paper ... obviously tunas not that color. Real albacore is brown and fleshy.
Even Danny Johnson, the owner of Taylors Market in Land Park, has played victim to the seafood switcheroo. After hearing stories about the flood of fraudulent fish in the marketplace, he conducted some research on the snapper being supplied to his seafood counter by a distributor.
We found out it wasnt Pacific snapper, Johnson said. It was rock cod. But when you say (to a distributor) that you need snapper, youd trust thats what it is.
According to Oceana, a Monterey-based ocean conservation and advocacy group, seafood mislabeling runs rampant across the country, especially in California. A recent study from Oceana found that 44 percent of grocery stores, restaurants and sushi eateries surveyed in the state sold mislabeled seafood. In Southern California, 84 percent of sushi samples were found to be mislabeled.
The Oceana study wasnt able to pinpoint where in the economic food chain fraud or mislabeling was most likely to take place. Mislabeling happens for a variety of reasons, and can occur in many sectors of the seafood industry.
In some cases, theres outright fish fraud with suppliers. The owner of Universal Group, Inc., a Massachusetts-based wholesaler, was ordered to pay $75,000 and sentenced to three months of home detention in 2011 after selling falsely labeled Vietnamese catfish to the T.G.I. Fridays chain. Diners were led to think they were eating grouper, which costs twice the price of the catfish.
Vernacular terms can also cause confusion. Some seafoods have many commonly used names, and the same fish might be called something different in various regions. The Seafood List, a guide to seafood species issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, allows 45 species to be labeled as snapper. Seventy species from the list can be labeled as grouper. The species lateolabrax japonicas can be either a perch or sea bass.
Some chefs simply need better schooling on what theyre serving. I think a small percentage of (mislabeling) is deceit, but its mostly miseducation, Pham said. A lot of things can get lost in translation when fish is going from one country into another.
But if one state lawmaker has his way, mislabeling fish would constitute a crime. Violators would be on the hook for up to a $1,000 fine and a year in jail.
The bill, SB 1138, by Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Los Angeles, would require labeling of fresh, frozen, processed and others forms of fish to be identified by their common name, which means the common name or market name for any seafood species identified in the Seafood List, the bill says. Washington state passed a similar law in 2013.
Ive come to learn that consumers dont always get what they pay for, Padilla said at a press conference at Taylors Market on Monday. Consumers deserve to be serve fish theyve ordered.
SB 1138 passed from the Senates health committee Wednesday on an 8-0 vote and is headed to the Senates appropriations committee.
In the meantime, how can seafood-loving consumers protect themselves?
For starters, they can become familiar with Oceanas list of commonly mislabeled seafoods. They can also check the list of partners in Monterey Bay Aquariums Seafood Watch program, which offers consumer guidance in seafood choices. Taylors Market and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op are among the local businesses flying the Seafood Watch flag.
And when youre scooting up to the sushi bar, dont be afraid to ask questions. Otherwise, you might get reeled into paying more than you should for seafood.
If you come in with questions, youll put someone on their feet, and if they have intentions of cheating they probably wont do it to you, Pham said. Always keep in mind youre not always getting what youre paying for.
Call The Bees Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. On Twitter @chris_macias.