Fish Fraud

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When wholesalers attempted the same scam, they caught the attention of the FDA, the federal agency that regulates fish sold in interstate commerce. The agency publishes a list of acceptable names for both domestic and imported fish. Speaking to the National Fisheries Institute in April 1991, FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler said: "There is no place in the seafood industry for those who substitute a less expensive or less desirable species of fish for one that consumers value more. We will seek out those who perpetrate fraud -- and we will bring them to justice."

Unless, of course, those who perpetrate fraud own a restaurant, Kessler might have added. While purveyors have been fairly scrupulous thanks to FDA seizures of mislabeled fish, restaurants have been left to their own devices. "Restaurants are outside our jurisdiction," says an FDA spokesperson. "We can only regulate wholesalers and retail stores -- businesses engaged in interstate commerce." Who regulates fish sold by Texas restaurants? The short answer is no one.

And without any oversight, the food service industry has turned making up names for fish into a creative writing exercise. Purveyors don't even recognize their own inventory items anymore. "I walk into a restaurant that's one of my clients and I look at the menu and I think, 'I've never heard of these fish, who do they buy them from?' " says a salesman for Austin restaurant supplier Ben E. Keith. "And then it dawns on me -- these are my fish with different names!"

One of the imaginative names currently in vogue with restaurants is "scarlet snapper," an alias for Cape capensis, an inexpensive hake from South Africa, and an Indonesian fish formerly known as Malabar blood snapper. Consider yourself lucky if a restaurant is scrupulous enough to say it is serving scarlet snapper. "Anything that's red is usually going to be sold as red snapper, no matter what it is," says Sysco's Todd Smith, who used to be the fish buyer in the restaurant supplier's Houston office. "But you can always tell the real thing," he advises. "If the skin and the tail curls when it's grilled, it's not really Gulf red snapper."

You can blame Paul Prudhomme for the overfishing of redfish and red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico. You can blame commercial and recreational fishermen. Or you can blame shrimpers. There's lots of guilt to go around. Prudhomme's involvement began innocently enough when he drew so much attention to Cajun food back in the 1980s. Blackened redfish and red snapper dishes became so popular that the Gulf was virtually cleaned out. Commercial fishing for the once poorly thought of redfish (also known as red drum) has never recovered. The species is now grown in fish farms and retails for around $7.50 a pound.

The Gulf red snapper fishery still survives, but it is at the center of a heated debate. A massive drop in the red snapper catch between 1980 and 1984 prompted restrictions on both commercial and recreational fishing. The National Marine Fisheries Service also mandated that bycatch reduction devices be installed on shrimp trawlers, which kill millions of juvenile red snapper every year. But the Texas Shrimp Association filed a lawsuit opposing the devices, and they were never adopted. The shrimpers recommend that the federally mandated recovery of the snapper fishery be accomplished by further tightening seasons and quotas for fishermen. Fishermen respond that the season is too short already.

The 2001 Gulf red snapper fall season will be limited to the first through the tenth day of October, November and December, or until the quota of 1,635,408 pounds (commercial and recreational combined) is reached. That's a fraction of the abundant catches of yesteryear. Suffice to say, the price of Gulf red snapper shows no signs of coming down anytime soon.

Throughout this long struggle between federal agencies, commercial and recreational fishermen, and shrimpers, public demand for red snapper has remained high. With the fish in short supply and the prices going through the roof, it's little wonder that restaurant owners, especially those who run Cajun restaurants, have sought substitutes.

Pappadeaux, the Cajun seafood chain owned by Pappas Restaurants Inc. of Houston, opened at the height of the Louisiana cuisine's national popularity in the mid-1980s. It offered Gulf red snapper in a variety of preparations. (Pappadeaux's red snapper Pontchartrain, featuring a rich sauce loaded with crabmeat, was my favorite.) But then the Gulf red snapper suddenly disappeared from the restaurant and Pappadeaux's waiters started playing word games.

"They took red snapper off the menu around 1987," a former employee remembers. "The waiters still said we had snapper, but they didn't say it was Gulf red snapper anymore. Customers complained about the fish and got mad at the waiters all the time. But we couldn't tell them the truth, because our managers never told us what kind of fish it was."

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh