Getting Scrod* in Boston: The Ravages of Seafood Fraud

“Why, certainly that’s a red snapper, sir! Just came off the boat today!!”

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!”

10 Comments

Filed under Business & Commercial, Government & Politics, Health and Medicine, Law & Law Enforcement, Professions, U.S. Society

10 responses to “Getting Scrod* in Boston: The Ravages of Seafood Fraud

  1. Elizabeth

    Anyone who read “The Perfect Storm” should know better than to eat either fresh or frozen swordfish again. Gutting the fish and putting them on ice for 3 to 4 weeks while they’re at sea? Would one consider that fish “fresh?” Yum, yum.

    There is so much concern for beef, pork, chicken, etc., that we seem to have forgotten about fish and seafood. The best advice I ever got re buying fish and seafood was (1) if it’s frozen, make sure it was frozen raw, so there was less time spent in handling it; (2) know where the heck your fish comes from, then judge whether it can really be fresh in your market.

    As for the restaurants, I’m not surprised with the Boston findings, since it’s been known for years that what is sold as “sea scallops” are often really circular-shaped cuts of lesser fish. Around here, the only thing you can be sure of is crab and bay scallops (smaller, but right out of the Chesapeake Bay).

    I think vegetarianism is in my future.

    PS What, if anything, happened to the Boston-area restaurants who were caught misrepresenting and selling their food products? They should have been fined and shut down for a period of time with “closed for health reasons” signs on their doors. They’d deserve it.

    • tgt

      Around here, the only thing you can be sure of is crab and bay scallops (smaller, but right out of the Chesapeake Bay).

      If a restaurant servers crabs or crab cakes year round, it’s likely gulf or Argentinian crab. Whole crabs will be the right species, but crab cakes can also be made from a similar tasting (but different looking and cheaper) chinese crab.

      Even restaurants litterally on the bay often don’t sell Chessepeake Bay Blue Crab.

      • Elizabeth

        TGT: You’re right. And knowing when it’s really soft-shell crab season is vital, unless you want something that’s been frozen…yecch.

        • tgt

          I compromise. So long as it’s blue crab, I’m good with it. Of course, that might be rationalization to allow me to eat G&M crabcakes, and purchase better picked backfin meat.

  2. 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.’’
    I hate to think of the percentage of people who lie,cheat and steal who wouldn’t otherwise when they think they can get away with it. I think that percentage would be pretty high. Maybe I’m just cynical but with all the rotten news abounding I find my faith in human nature at an all time low. And this guy’s reasoning that it’s okay? Does he really believe that?
    I believe regulation is necessary. If people want less regulation then I suggest they keep their noses clean. I don’t like over-regulation such as suggesting that people should be prohibited by law from drinking raw milk from their own cow or the Gibson fiasco.

  3. Bill

    Any fish you get served in a sushi resturaunt is previously frozen. Anyone who thinks it isn’t is fooling themselves. Its been industry standard for years to flash freeze sushi grade fish to way below zero and store it then serve it.

  4. Karl Penny

    Depressing, indeed. I used to eat a lot of fish when I was younger, but that has tapered off to the point that I now eat very little of it. I’m thinking that this gives me motive to swear it off altogether. Easy for me, but not so pleasant for all those fish lovers out there who are being taken—twice. First, by not getting what they thought they were; and second, by paying more for something inferior. Then there’s that justification: “Nobody’s ever complained.” Well, yeah, the victim of a swindle who doesn’t realize he’s been swindled isn’t likely to complain, now is he (or her)? I’m off to find some more cheerful news in an effort to re-happy my premises.

  5. Michael

    I think the problem is probably so widespread and has been going on so long that people don’t know what different fish SHOULD look and taste like. The other part of it is that most fish served in restaurants have been cooked/fried/covered in sauces and the true taste and texture of the fish is hidden anyway. The problem is what to do about such fraud. Some possibilities are:

    (1) Get a lot of people to file small claims suits against them

    (2) Boycott the restaurants

    (3) Have cities inspect and monitor the restaurants (at substantial cost)

    (4) Realize that lots of these fish taste the same (or at least don’t taste ‘inferior’) and only order the cheap fish on the menu.

    I have been a proponent of #4 myself and have been for years. I realized early on that many of these fish taste the same to me. Now, it seems that the reason might have been that they WERE all the same fish!

    • tgt

      (4) is a personal solution, but it doesn’t solve the fraud problem.

      Why not a class action suit?

      • Elizabeth

        Now there’s an idea! Use the Boston study to get some lawyer interested, and go from there.

        I think the pocketbook issue would carry more weight with restaurants/fishmongers (Do people still use that word?… That’s my Charles Dickens coming out…) than what we all say we don’t want — more government regulation/expenditure, which probably wouldn’t have much impact anyway. And boycotts and individual lawsuits would probably cost more all told than getting a class action going, even with the lawyer taking a third. Jack: how does one start a class action suit, anyway?

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