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Do you know what you're really buying?
More than half of fish and seafood in Los Angeles is labeled incorrectly, according to a new study by Oceana, an international non-profit organization that works to protect the world's oceans.
Oceana tested 119 seafood samples from 74 restaurants, sushi bars and grocery stores around Southern California. Red snapper was found to be mislabeled 100 percent of the time, often substituted with Tilapia, Pollock or another species of rock fish. In 87 percent of cases, white tuna turned out to be escolar, a type of snake mackerel that is also known to cause gastrointestinal issues in some people.
“It was quite surprising to us that of the 47 different species of fish that the FDA allows to be called ‘snapper,’ we didn't find on example of that in our substitutions,” said Kimberly Warner, senior scientist for Oceana. “Our sampling was targeted in sushi restaurants, and certainly on the snapper and white tuna side of things, there was quite a bit of mislabeling … there may be an issue with mistranslation of names from Japanese to English.”
It's not clear at what point species substitution takes place, but here in California, a bill has been put forward that would require restaurants to accurately label seafood and include details of its country of origin.
Peter Huh is president of the Pacific American Fish Company, a major importer and wholesaler of seafood In Los Angeles. He says the problem lies in the retail level, not with wholesalers or distributors.
“To be very frank, I think this problem is because of lack of education … I think there is some economic fraud going on in the restaurant level,” said Huh. “I am a pescetarian consumer myself, and I eat seafood four or five times a week and it’s frustrating when the restaurants misrepresent the product. I don't know if they do that intentionally or unintentionally. I think if you look at it, the majority of the incidents are because of the retailers not understanding the proper name.”
Unless you’re a seafood aficionado, it may be difficult to tell whether you’re getting red snapper or a substitute. So what can a normal consumer do to avoid purchasing a substitute fish?
Chef Michael Cimarusti of Providence restaurant in Los Angeles says to avoid purchasing from grocery stores. “For me, I don't purchase fish at supermarkets,” said Cimarusti. “Go to Santa Monica Seafood in Santa Monica...go to go to people who make it their life's work. We look for everything in one place and it’s not always to our benefit.”
Ocean did not release the names of the restaurants and grocery stores it found to be serving a substitute fish. However, Warner says the problem can be fixed if the government regulates the seafood market more closely.
“With increased vigilance, at various local and federal levels, you can crack down on this,” said Warner. “There's a lot of different things that need cracking down on, but there are limited resources that are available.”
What concerns do you have about the fish you eat and where it comes from? Do you ask questions about the fish that is served in restaurants? Have you cut back on your fish consumption over concerns surrounding the source? When it comes to your children, are you mindful of what fish you feed them and how often? Or perhaps you're a restaurant owner; how do you ensure the quality and the source of your fish and seafood?
Kimberly Warner, Senior Scientist, Oceana, the ocean advocacy group that did the fish labeling study.
Peter Huh, President, Pacific American Fish Company, a major importer/wholesaler here in Southern California. His wife Jihee Huh is on SCPR’s Board of Trustees.
Michael Cimarusti, Proprietor and Executive Chef, Providence, a Michelin-starred (two stars) seafood restaurant on Melrose Ave.