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SANTA MONICA DAILY PRESS: Talk about sticker shock - fish mislabeling rampant in southern California
April 20, 2012
By Ashley Archibald
CITYWIDE — Next time you walk into one of the approximately 40 restaurants that serve sushi in Santa Monica, be aware — that ono may not be what you think it is.
Such are the findings released this week by Oceana, an international nonprofit dedicated to protecting the world's marine environments, that tested fish from sushi venues, grocery stores and restaurants in the Los Angeles area to see if what was on the label matched reality.
The result: Over 55 percent of the 119 samples collected were mislabeled under federal guidelines, and even more flexible California laws were routinely violated.
Results from sushi restaurants were even worse, with nine out of 10 tested coming up as the wrong kind of fish, according to the report. It's a widespread problem that many consumers aren't aware of, but should be, said Kimberly Warner, one of the authors of the report.
"The seafood supply is so obscure and non-transparent that it's hard to show where along this chain mislabeling and fraud occur," Warner said. That kind of mislabeling can be harmful both for health reasons, and also because consumers may be tricked into paying more for a premium fish when they're actually purchasing a lesser product. Those with allergies to certain kinds of fish or other sensitivities could be seriously hurt by mislabeled fish.
Or, in the case of an anonymous sushi restaurant in Santa Monica that got popped by the report, those serving up mislabeled fish may be responsible for more embarrassing conditions. (Officials with Oceana would not release the name of the Santa Monica restaurant because they felt it was unfair given that they were not certain who was at fault for the mislabled fish — the restaurant or the supplier.)
According to the report, a sushi restaurant in town told customers they were eating "white tuna" or "ono" when, in fact, they were eating a variety of snake mackerel called escolar.
While that might sound more annoying than anything, over-consumption of escolar can result in gastrointestinal problems, namely some nasty diarrhea.
According to the report, eight out of nine sushi restaurants switched out "white tuna" for escolar, and others used escolar in place of ono, a fish also called a "wahoo." Mislabeling also strikes at another vulnerable spot for many consumers. Their wallet.
Not all fish sellers know that they're passing off bad product, but those that do are cashing in, said Mary Smith, marketing manager for the Santa Monica Seafood Company. "Those who are doing it on purpose are selling a less expensive fish as a more expensive fish to make money," she said.
In the study, every single sample of fish labeled "red snapper," for instance, was actually another fish masquerading as the popular dinner item, despite the fact that the federal government recognizes 47 different kinds of fish species as "snapper." That kind of fraud also impacts the environment, Smith said.
Consumers who choose to "vote with their dollars" to support sustainable fishing practices by buying wild caught fish over farmed get duped by nefarious labeling practices.
Santa Monica Seafood ensures its seafood is exactly what it says it is by putting expert teams at docks and inspecting facilities that supply it fish. That means making sure fish comes in whole as much as possible so that well-trained inspectors can tell what kind of animal was caught.
The company plans to begin DNA testing its fish in the near future for extra security, Smith said. "We don't want people worrying about fraud to drive them not to purchase seafood," Smith said. "We want people to be eating more seafood."
Santa Monica Seafood's practices have earned it a Food Safety System Certification, making it the first seafood company in the country to get the certification. According to the report, even lesser levels of quality assurance are more rare than most consumers believe.
The United States imports 84 percent of its seafood. In 2009, only 2 percent of that total was inspected and less than .001 percent specifically for seafood fraud, according to the Oceana report.
Fixing that will involve more testing along the supply chain and good vigilance, Warner said.
There are some legislative remedies in the works.
State Sen. Ted Lieu, who is running unopposed to represent Santa Monica in a newly created district, is carrying a bill that would require retail-food outlets with 19 or more establishments that sell seafood as a menu item to identify as part of the menu the specific species of fish served, the country in which it was caught and whether or not it was farm raised or wild caught.
"As our food supply becomes more global, it is more important than ever to give consumers accurate information about the seafood they eat," Lieu said. "Our health may depend on it."