Take Two®

News and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by A Martínez

Edible QR codes help San Diego sushi diners trace origin of fish

by A Martínez with Matt Lee | Take Two®

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A sushi chef (R) serves up tuna sushi made from a 222-kg (488-pound) bluefin tuna, purchased earlier in the day for a record price and sliced up for customers at the main restaurant of the popular Japanese chain Sushi-Zanmai near Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market on January 5, 2013. YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images

Take a second look at your next sushi order, you might find a strange garnish sitting upon the back of your salmon skin roll.

Harney Sushi in San Diego has started printing edible, water-base ink QR codes on rice paper wafers and placing these smart garnishes on their dishes. QR codes, short for Quick Response codes, are square barcodes that can be scanned by smartphones to access information. 

The codes are printed using the same edible ink used by the pastry industry to print photos on birthday cakes. 

In the case of the QR codes placed on the sushi served at Harney Sushi, once scanned you’ll be sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s FishWatch (NOAA) website, which will give you additional information about the sustainability and origin of the fish you’re about to eat.

Harney Sushi’s executive Chef Rob Ruiz, the driving force behind these edible QR codes was inspired while researching sustainable cuisine.

“I basically was desperately seeking information about sustainable seafood, sustainable sushi anything. I was getting sustainable sushi emails from all over the world, and I got one from a sushi bar in London called Moshi,” said Ruiz. "They had done an event with the Marine Stewardship Council where they created this edible rice paper QR code kind of as a one time thing.”

Ruiz took it one step further saying, “We're not just doing it as a one time thing with a rubber stamp. We're really using it strategically with different websites and in the near future, starting in July, we're gonna have species specific QR codes.”

Aside from informing diners about where their fish is from, Ruiz hopes that the information his QR codes provide will help combat fish fraud.

Fish fraud, the intentional mislabeling of fish, has been reported by the ocean conservation group Oceana to be a rampant problem in Los Angeles.

A 2011 study by Oceana found that:

  • Fraud was detected in 11 out of 18 different types of fish purchased.
  • Every single fish sold with the word “snapper” in the label (34 out of 34) was mislabeled, according to federal guidelines.
  • Nearly nine out of every ten sushi samples was mislabeled.
  • Eight out of nine sushi samples labeled as “white tuna” were actually escolar, a species that carries a health warning for it purgative effects.

“We're in the worst area of the most rampant fish fraud,” said Ruiz, echoing Oceana’s report. "So by people scanning the QR code they can go directly to fishwatch.gov and you can click on a species and it tells you everything about it.”

Ruiz aims for having at least one barcode going out to every table, saying he doesn’t want to tell people what to do, but rather give his diners the best information available to make their own decisions. 

So far Ruiz says customers have been overwhelmingly positive about the additions to their orders,“The only time when people get upset is when it's been saturated with soy sauce and they can't get to scan it.”

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