If there is an opportunity for profitable dishonesty that nobody is paying attention to, the overwhelming likelihood is that it will flourish to the point of becoming standard practice.
Isn’t that discouraging? I hate to write that sentence, as I hate to think or accept the conclusion behind it. Yet when I come upon a topic like seafood fraud (or fish fraud), it is hard to deny.
The Boston Globe just published the results of a wide-ranging, five-month investigation into the mislabeling of fish in the Greater Boston area and other parts of Massachusetts. The shocking results showed that Bay State consumers:
“…routinely and unwittingly overpay for less desirable, sometimes undesirable, species – or buy seafood that is simply not what it is advertised to be. In many cases, the fish was caught thousands of miles away and frozen, not hauled in by local fishermen, as the menu claimed. It may be perfectly palatable – just not what the customer ordered. But sometimes mislabeled seafood can cause allergic reactions, violate dietary restrictions, or contain chemicals banned in the United States.
“The Globe collected fish from 134 restaurants, grocery stores, and seafood markets from Leominster to Provincetown, and hired a laboratory in Canada to conduct DNA testing on the samples. Analyses by the DNA lab and other scientists showed that 87 of 183 were sold with the wrong species name – 48 percent.”
That’s in New England, which has consumers who are especially knowledgeable about their fish. Does anyone want to guess whether sea food mislabeling is better or worse in other parts of the country?
Yes, that would be my guess too.
Some examples from the article:
- The sushi as white tuna at a local Japanese eatery was actually escolar, an oily, cheaper species banned in Japan because it can make people sick.
- The Alaskan butterfish at a celebrity chef restaurant tested as sablefish, a different and cheaper fish usually found in delicatessens.
- At another seafood restaurant, the $23 flounder fillet turned out to be a Vietnamese catfish known as swai – nutritionally inferior and often priced under $4 a pound.
- The Globe-sponsored DNA testing found 24 of the 26 red snapper samples were in fact other, less prized species.
- All 23 white tuna samples tested as some other type of fish, usually escolar, often called the “ex-lax’’ fish because of the digestion problems it can cause. How nice.
- At a one well-known restaurant, the baby cod advertised on the menu was hake, a less expensive fish found off the coast of southern Africa. Previously frozen chunks of Pacific cod took the place of “fresh New England cod” or haddock at other popular restaurants.
- The owner of a tested restaurant admitted serving ocean perch instead of the $14 red snapper in garlic sauce listed on the menu, saying, “They are completely different fish. I’m not going to lie to you.” he said. He began cheating when red snapper became hard to find and twice as expensive as ocean perch, which he could buy for about $4 pound. “The flavor is pretty good,’’ he told investigators. “I have never received any complaints about it in the last couple of years.’’
It goes on and on. Seafood fraud, which the article suggests is nearly an industry standard in some areas, taking place in up to 70% of stores and restaurants, has health risks, undermines the trade of Atlantic fishermen, and defrauds consumers. “A lot of people do it until they get caught,’’ one wholesaler said. But up until now, little has been done to catch them.
A good question to ask the Republican presidential candidates might be for them to square the existence of widespread seafood fraud, estimated by the National Fisheries Institute by to cost diners and the industry hundreds of millions of dollars annually, with their opposition to increased government regulation. As with Wall Street, real estate and many other industries, intense oversight and regulation wouldn’t be necessary if we could trust people not to cut corners, cheat, and deceive when there is profit to be made.
But as the Boston seafood restaurant culture vividly shows, we can’t.
I hate that.
* A variety of white fish, popular in Boston, and the basis for the hoariest Boston joke of all time, in which a visitor asks a native, “Where can I get scrod in this town?” and is told, “You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard that word in the pluperfect subjunctive!”