Fish Fraud

Today's fish special is red snapper Cancun, says the waitress at Tortuga Coastal Cantina. The moderately priced Tex-Mex restaurant on Kirby is decorated with images of Mexican beaches and giant sea turtles, tortugas in Spanish. Many Mexican tortugas, once highly prized by gourmets, are now on the endangered species list. Red snapper is not so abundant anymore either. This year's snapper season is the shortest in memory. The fish sells for up to $10 a pound at wholesale, when you can find any. So it's odd that an inexpensive restaurant like Tortuga offers it as a lunch special for a mere $8.95.

"Is it Gulf red snapper?" I ask the waitress.

"Sí, red snapper," she says.

"Red snapper from the Gulf of Mexico?" I ask again. She doesn't understand English well enough to respond, so she gets a manager.

"No, it's just regular red snapper," he says.

"I've never heard of 'regular' red snapper," I tell him. "Can I see the fish?"

"It's already cut into fillets," he says.

"Can I see the box it came in?" I request. He goes into the kitchen and never comes back. The manager's manager appears.

"The box just says Sysco," he reports.

"I'm sure the name of the fish is on the box," I insist. I stand up and suggest we both go to the kitchen and take a look in the freezer.

"The boxes have all been thrown away," he suddenly remembers.

"Well, then, could you show me the invoice?" I ask. "The name of the fish is on the invoice."

"I don't have access to the invoices," he tells me. Although I know he is lying through his teeth, I feel sorry for the guy. It's his employer that has put him up to this deception. Offering an expensive fish like red snapper and then serving cheap frozen fillets is a great way to increase profits. And it's nearly impossible to get caught.

The Food and Drug Administration says substituting cheap fish for one consumers value more is fraud. But no one enforces these regulations. So Texas restaurants are free to rip you off.

"It's a huge problem," says Robert Del Grande, celebrity chef and co-owner of the highly rated Cafe Annie. "The whole thing pisses me off." By the time the average red snapper is cleaned and filleted, it can cost a restaurant $17 a pound, he says. "People see red snapper on our menu for $30 and they think, 'Hey, I can get that for $8.95 down the street.' If somebody tried to sell you a gold Rolex for $8.95, you wouldn't trust them for a minute," says Del Grande. "But when it comes to food, consumers believe anything."

Del Grande has just come from a restaurant conference in Chicago, and he tells me about an executive from a taco chain in California who sells lobster tacos for $5.99. Someone in the audience asked him where he was getting lobster that cheap, and the taco guy said the lobster was langoustine from South America. Langoustine isn't lobster; it's more like a big shrimp. But people like lobster, so he calls it lobster, Del Grande says in disbelief.

Consumer fraud has become a fact of life in the seafood restaurant business, where changing the name of a fish can have an enormous economic impact. "It's a scam, like taking empty vodka bottles out back and refilling them with cheap vodka," rails Del Grande. "But the whole thing has been going on for so long, I don't know how you can stop it."

The first time I ever got bamboozled with fake fish was at the Elite Café, a Cajun/Creole joint on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. One night in the early 1980s, the red snapper special I ordered didn't taste right. Instead of the firm-fleshed fish I knew from Texas, a pile of tasteless white mush sat on my plate. When questioned, the waiter admitted that this "red snapper" was actually something he called "Pacific red snapper."

Pacific red snapper is what the fish industry calls a coined name. Coining new names for fish with unappetizing monikers has long been a common practice. When Patagonian toothfish was renamed Chilean sea bass, the public didn't seem to mind, even though the fish is not a bass. Fishmongers argued that the name change was a good way to sell an underutilized species and take the pressure off the overfished ones.

But coining names also made craven profiteering possible. Pacific rockfish, or red rock cod, is a bright red fish that typically sells for under $3 a pound, a fraction of the price of Gulf red snapper. After the fish was renamed Pacific red snapper, restaurants began substituting the cheap rockfish for the expensive Gulf fish and made a killing in the process.