Nosh Pit

April 13, 2014

The Nosh Pit: How to protect yourself from seafood fraud

If you’ve ever sampled sushi in the Sacramento area, chances are the seafood industry’s caught you in some bait and switch.

Nosh Pit with Chris Macias

Chris Macias chops it up about local food and drink issues

If you’ve ever sampled sushi in the Sacramento area, chances are the seafood industry’s 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?” That’s 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. Pham’s 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.

“It’s a hugely prevalent problem,” Pham said. “Everybody’s been duped. If you order ‘white tuna’ and it comes out the color of paper ... obviously tuna’s not that color. Real albacore is brown and fleshy.”

Even Danny Johnson, the owner of Taylor’s 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 wasn’t Pacific snapper,” Johnson said. “It was rock cod. But when you say (to a distributor) that you need snapper, you’d trust that’s 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 wasn’t 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, there’s 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. Friday’s 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 they’re serving. “I think a small percentage of (mislabeling) is deceit, but it’s 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.

“I’ve come to learn that consumers don’t always get what they pay for,” Padilla said at a press conference at Taylor’s Market on Monday. “Consumers deserve to be serve fish they’ve ordered.”

SB 1138 passed from the Senate’s health committee Wednesday on an 8-0 vote and is headed to the Senate’s appropriations committee.

In the meantime, how can seafood-loving consumers protect themselves?

For starters, they can become familiar with Oceana’s list of commonly mislabeled seafoods. They can also check the list of partners in Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which offers consumer guidance in seafood choices. Taylor’s Market and the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op are among the local businesses flying the Seafood Watch flag.

And when you’re scooting up to the sushi bar, don’t be afraid to ask questions. Otherwise, you might get reeled into paying more than you should for seafood.

“If you come in with questions, you’ll put someone on their feet, and if they have intentions of cheating they probably won’t do it to you,” Pham said. “Always keep in mind you’re not always getting what you’re paying for.”

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