Bait and Switch

Sometimes a toothfish is just a toothfish. And sometimes it’s a sea bass. Sort of. Not really. It’s just a toothfish.

A study released in February by conservation group Oceana found that, among other shocking revelations, 59 percent of America’s “tuna” isn’t. You’ve likely seen some of the reaction in the media. The reports are breathlessly covered on the evening news, the subject of tough-talking “fight back” segments and crusading consumer advocacy bits. Blog headlines scream out about the growing seafood fraud and worse.

Over the course of two years, Oceana’s researchers analyzed 1,215 samples from a variety of sources (including suppliers, grocery stores and restaurants) and found through genetic testing one-third of them to be misidentified, per US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines. In New York, 39 percent of the 142 samples collected were determined, through the DNA testing, to be mislabeled. Most of the samples were bought in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, but the study also stretched as far north as Scarsdale and as far east as Commack. Every single one of the 16 sushi restaurants tested in New York sold misidentified fish to the testers. Every single one.

On the surface, you are left with the impression that greedy fishmongers, restaurateurs and, especially sushi chefs (a whopping 74 percent of fish from sushi joints tested nationwide was found to be mislabeled) are out to defraud and cheat the public, getting fat on the sale of Antarctic toothfish pawned off as authentic Chilean sea bass—one of the common substitutions according to the Oceana study.

But hold on. Things are seldom so black and white. Consider for a moment that fish names are somewhat protean. For example, the name “Chilean sea bass” is a wholly made-up marketing term used to describe a fleshy, white fish that is not genetically a sea bass at all (which was already a thing), but rather something called a Patagonian toothfish, which no restaurateur worth his Zagat rating would print on his menu. Hence the Chilean sea bass, not a sea bass at all, was born. However, “Chilean sea bass” is an accepted name for Patagonian toothfish, per the FDA—a kind of government-sanctioned mislabeling. Call an Antarctic toothfish a Chilean seabass though, and you have committed fraud.

Generally then, a seller in possession of an Antarctic toothfish has two options: Sell it labeled as such and watch it rot in the kitchen, or call it by the more palatable, made-up name for a related species (now over-fished due to the effectiveness of the aforementioned marketing scheme) and watch it fly off the menu. And this is just what happens, with Antarctic toothfish frequently standing in for its South American cousin.

But let’s forget about toothfish, a somewhat ugly, wide-mouthed fish with a suitable name but delicious flesh, for a second. What about snapper, another of the most frequently mislabeled species? That’s got to be more clear-cut, right? Well, not exactly, because the FDA allows some species of fish that aren’t really red snapper to be labeled as such, but only those.

Oceana senior scientist Dr. Kimberly Warner, one of the report’s authors explained to us, “I think the fact that all types of retail outlets mislabeled fish as red snapper has something to do with consumer familiarity with the name, rather than the real red snapper. More people have heard of snapper than ‘jobfish’ or ‘pinjalo,’ so familiarity is one aspect. The FDA addresses this by regularly updating their Seafood List to include more of the less familiar species, which can now be marketed under the more familiar names. For example, several species of jobfish can now be called snapper, with the most recent update [on February 14, 2013].”

In 2011, Americans consumed 4.7 billion pounds of seafood, 91 percent of which was imported. Of the approximately 500 different species of fish and shellfish sold for consumption annually in the US, 10 of them account for 90 percent and just three—shrimp, salmon and tuna—account for more than half.

It’s pretty tough to mislabel a shrimp, and there are plenty of those, but of the samples Oceana purchased in New York City, 94 percent of the “tuna” was actually something else. And 11 out of 26 of the salmon samples were mislabeled. If you look at the consumption numbers though (which obviously must include substituted fish), perhaps part of the problem is the insane demand for a limited variety.

Are we a nation of childishly entitled picky eaters who will only eat what’s familiar? The same insane consumer demand—the persnickety diner stubbornly refusing to eat anything but breast meat—that drove the agribusiness poultry farms to create franken-chickens with Pamela Anderson proportions is driving unsustainable fishing practices that international regulations can only struggle to get a handle on. Some of the mislabeling is likely the result of fishermen skirting these attempts at regulation just as some of it is the drive to meet an unmeetable demand. There is simply not enough salmon, tuna, snapper and sea bass in the sea.

There’s little indication of the root cause of the misidentifications, though Oceana has called for more accountability from those sources they can identify. “We need a traceability system that tracks fish from boat to plate,” said Warner.

It seems like a big solution to a small problem, but there are legitimate gripes with mislabeling.

We didn’t need the horsemeat recall to remind us that there is, of course, something inherently repulsive about not knowing what we are putting into our mouths. Compound this with the fact that one of the fish commonly (very, very commonly) substituted for white tuna, escolar, has been known to, in the words of the Oceana report, “cause serious digestive issues for some individuals who eat more than a few ounces.” Others have put this less delicately, hence you get alarmist headlines warning of “prolonged, uncontrollable, oily anal leakage.”

Well “anal leakage” just plain makes for good copy. Nothing grabs attention quite like sputtering sphincters.

This salacious slant often becomes the number one argument of those enraged by the mislabeling reports. But you’ve eaten escolar.

Statistically if you have eaten in a sushi restaurant you have assuredly eaten escolar. Nationwide 84 percent of the “white tuna” samples tested were found to actually be escolar. And remember that 94 percent figure in New York? Yep. As opposed to the pinkish-hued and less creamy white tuna, escolar is a very white, opaque and rich fish. Sound familiar?

So how to explain, despite the reports of a few apparently soggy-bottomed bloggers, the fact that we are not all running from sushi counters projectile defecating?

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An oily substance called gempylotoxin builds up in the muscle tissue of escolar, part of what gives the fish its comparative richness. “The waxy esters in gempylotoxin are not digestible, as we humans lack the digestive enzymes to make use of them,” said Barton Seaver a director at Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. So the waxy esters move through the digestive tract and, in large amounts, cause what Barton colorfully calls “an evacuation” in some people.

The effects of escolar seem to vary, but you can bet that a KFC Double Down or Cool Ranch Dorito Taco is at least as damaging to the average digestive tract.

“As far as how many are afflicted, I think it’s a matter of exposure,” said Seaver. Since escolar is usually substituted for small sashimi slivers of white tuna, an ounce or two at best, most people aren’t eating very much of it. So while nobody can digest the waxy esters, a little bit doesn’t seem to affect most people.

Many cases of mislabeled fish may be far less premeditated than the switch of escolar for white tuna or a lower-cost perch for red snapper.

“Fish isn’t like beef,” said Chef Michael Leviton, who owns and cooks in two seafood-centric Boston-area restaurants. “It’s not always fresh and available and sometimes you have to make substitutions.”

His solution is pretty simple and one of the only ones that an honest restaurant serving fresh-caught seafood can employ.

At his restaurants, Lumière in West Newton, MA and Area Four in Cambridge, Leviton deals with this by drawing up the menu every morning and accurately representing what’s on the plates, “because I don’t know what I’m getting.”

This of course, involves sometimes selling fish that are not the most popular or the ones diners are most used to ordering.

And so Leviton is also on something of an educational mission as board chair of Chefs Collaborative, a nonprofit network of chefs with the goal of promoting sustainable foods. And both at his restaurants and through a series of Chefs Collaborative dinners called “Trash Fish Dinners” Leviton is working toward expanding the typical diner’s repertoire. At the dinners, well-known area chefs cook up special menus featuring the likes of scup, sea robin and dogfish.

“Look, tastes are tastes,” he said. “There’s a reason farmed salmon is so popular.” And people have allergy issues and other things, so fish needs to be accurately labeled on menus; he understands that. But what he doesn’t get is the unwillingness to eat anything besides shrimp, salmon and tuna.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “There’s so much other good stuff out there.”

In New York State in 2011, 3,726,000 pounds of scup, or porgies, and 1,521,000 pounds of tilefish were brought into commercial docks (or landed), per NOAA’s National Marine Fishery Service. By comparison, 522,000 pounds of sea scallops and 344,000 pounds of American lobster were landed.

What’s caught locally in the Northeast then brought into New England and Montauk is a huge range of fish, very little of it the best-selling species. And Trash Fish Dinners, coming to New York this year, aim to show people what they are missing by not eating more local fish, the so-called “trash fish” that might otherwise get thrown overboard, dead. “If we could get more people to eat them,” said Leviton, “The fish in our area would be in that much better shape.”

Similarly, the just-launched Montauk-based company Dock to Dish, founded by commercial fisherman Rudi Bonicelli and restaurateur Sean Barrett, aims to do for fish what CSAs do for vegetables. Call it a CSF—community sponsored fishing cooperative. So far, Dock to Dish, now in its first season, represents more than a dozen licensed commercial fisherman and has 65 local Suffolk County members signed up to receive their weekly portions of just-caught in-season local fish. “All fish is caught locally and sustainably, with respect to the environment, and brought to shore within 24 hours of the catch,” according to the company rep.

The idea for such a surprisingly rare and unique program lodged in Barrett’s head after a trip to San Sebastian, Spain where he saw the fishing skiffs pulling up to the dock and distributing the day’s catch right there. Montauk, it seemed, lacked this direct link between fisherman and the table. In fact, most of the seafood caught locally has to come through distributors to be eaten, which means even a fresh local Montauk sea bass can often be caught in Montauk, shipped to Hunts Point in the Bronx, processed and shipped back to Long Island before it ends up on your table.

Barrett and Bonicelli worked closely with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to get Dock to Dish up and running and cut through the red tape. The fisherman are careful to stay within quotas and strictly follow FDA guidelines.

Since the members are committing to buy the weekly catch no matter if it is sea bass or scup they will surely be eating a wider variety of fish, partly thwarting any temptations anyone might have to mislabel the fish at any point in the process.

“When your catch of the day was really caught that day, it opens a whole new world of seafood options that are not possible or available in the historical fish distribution system,” says Barrett. “We catch a lot of species that are considered delicacies when they are fresh out of the water, but have no shelf life and go through drastic changes if they are frozen or preserved. There are some very abundant, absolutely delicious species of local fish that we bring back and that our members get to experience—that they would not be able to access and appreciate otherwise. Unless of course they went out to sea and caught it themselves.”