Fish connoisseurs beware: there are imposter fish floating around New York City’s finest dining establishments.
From 2010 to 2012, Oceana, the largest international ocean conservation and advocacy organization, conducted one of the largest seafood fraud investigations in the world to date, collecting more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states to determine if they were honestly labeled.
The results were shocking, as DNA testing found that one-third of the 1,215 samples analyzed nationwide were mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines---- in other words, one-third of the time, the fish that you order at a restaurant or buy at a grocery store is not what the label says.
Of the most commonly collected fish types, samples sold as snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates, at 87 and 59 percent, respectively. This can be unpleasant for some people, as the most common replacement for tuna is escolar, which is often referred to as the “Ex-Lax fish” and can cause quiet a—err—let’s go with discomfort, for those with a sensitive stomach and expect to follow dinner with a night on the town.
“Even a relatively educated consumer couldn’t look at a whole fish and say, ‘I’m sure that’s a red snapper and not a lane snapper,’” Kimberly Warne, the study’s chief author, told the New York Times.
This goes for top chefs too, who experts say often times have trouble deciphering between top-level fish and their cheaper substitutes.
In terms of location, the study indicates that seafood fraud hit the Big Apple hard this year, as rates of mislabeling were found to be at a high of 39. Eerily, every Manhattan sushi venue investigated sold mislabeled fish. Tied right below New York were Northern California and South Florida, at 38 percent. On the good list was Seattle, coming in at only 18 percent fraud, which compared to the rest of the numbers is no small feat. Still, one in five samples of the Salmon-crazed city proved to be mislabeled as well.
This is bad for a number of reasons. First off, there’s the “rip-off” element, as you end up paying more for less expensive fish.
Then there’s the health element. According to Oceana.org, some fish that end up on the FDA’s “DO NOT EAT” list for pregnant women due to their high mercury content are actually substituted for safer fish--- but the danger lies in that the swap goes both ways, meaning that tilefish (known for its mercury content) is being sold as red snapper, which is pregnancy-friendly. This was found to be true of Manhattan in particular, as even city’s poshest restaurants were found to be swapping fish.
Likewise, there’s the risk of allergies.
“If [a person] is not allergic to the fish they think they are getting, and that fish is substituted with one to which they are allergic, they obviously could have a serious allergic reaction,” said Dr. David Fleischer, an associate professor of pediatric allergy and immunology at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colo. “Patients need to be able to trust the people they purchase fish from.”
While the study’s authors couldn’t determine where mislabeling stemmed from --- did it arise from naïve misunderstanding, or calculated concealment? --- they also didn’t know where in the fish market pyramid the problem lies. In other words, is it the wholesaler, the retailer, or the fishing dock itself that does the mislabeling. They did however offer some words of wisdom for devout fish lovers: check the price. As the old saying goes, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.