With Sushi, You Can’t Always Get What You Want

When you are buying seafood, you want to know you are getting exactly what you pay for. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Oceana, the largest international ocean conservation group, recently released a study on the mislabeling of seafood in New York. Seafood fraud is big and getting bigger.Seafood lovers, beware. The study showed that a shocking 39% of products they purchased were mislabeled as a higher priced fish. Not once did they find evidence of a higher priced fish being sold for lower, which erases any doubt that these were all honest mistakes.

Why Deception In Seafood Can Be A Problem

After reading the study, I was dismayed to see that the mislabeling goes beyond simply getting a lower grade fish. In some cases, Escolar was substituted for White Tuna, and Tilefish was substituted for Grouper and Halibut. What does this mean for consumers? Well, for those who are avoiding mercury, Tilefish is a danger, with a mercury content so high that the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has actually officially warned pregnant women, nursing mothers, and small children to stay away from. Escolar is also troublesome, as it has been linked to causing gastrointestinal problems when consumed in large quantities. A shocking 94% of fish sold as “white tuna” was actually Escolar.

It gets worse. 39% percent sounds high, but compared to Boston and Los Angeles, New York is a city of saints. Los Angeles had over half of seafood mislabeled, with a 55% rate. Boston trailed close behind, missing out on the dubious honor of the city with the most seafood mislabeling with a total of 48%.

If you are pregnant, nursing, or have small children, I would advise being very careful with purchasing white tuna. One small hopeful point from the study is that mislabeling is far more widespread in small markets compared to larger chains. I can only wonder, how are people allowed to get away with this?

Is The Seafood Fraud Rate Improving?

From what we can find, the situation is not improving. Both The Guardian and Time Magazine have done continued research and found that up to 50% of the seafood purchased by consumers is fraudulently labeled. It’s not hard to believe that somehow the fish sent to sushi restaurants doesn’t suffer the same issues. I’m rather careful about what I order and what I eat. I’m also fortunate that I can often tell the difference based on the taste and look of a food item. But I’m definitely not perfect and would not be surprised if I’ve eaten a salmon roll or anything else and it wasn’t actually what was advertised.

While I don’t think it’s appropriate to immediately accuse a restaurant of committing fraud when they serve their sushi as they may not even know, but it is a good idea to be knowledgeable and cautious. Some fish, such as salmon could be one of many related species of fish. Tuna, and others face the same problem. Of course that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your sushi as long as it’s tasty and safe, so while it may not harm you (though watch out for escolar which is intensely white in color), it’s something to be aware of. Particularly if you have any issues with a specific type of fish.

Information taken from “Widespread Seafood Fraud Found In New York City“, initially published December 11, 2012 by Oceana.org.

Warren Ransom

I have always been fascinated by the creation and culture of different foods, particularly sushi and sashimi in the modern era of Japanese cuisine. I am a classically trained chef and sushi connoisseur, also having operated a food service company and enjoy investigating and experimenting with food around the world.

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