Fish Fraud

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Restaurant companies like Piccadilly Cafeteria, one of the few that admits to buying Vietnamese catfish, don't see any reason why they should label the catfish "Vietnamese." After all, they don't label the crawfish "Chinese" when they get them from Asia, the chain's executives argue.

The Piccadilly people have an excellent point. The politicians' concerns are limited to catfish. But enforcing a federal law requiring restaurants to identify Vietnamese catfish would make it hard to ignore the fraudulent labeling of all the other fish.

Is it illegal for Texas restaurants to lie about what kind of fish they're serving? I asked the authorities in charge. And their answer was a resounding "I don't know, maybe, but it's not my department."

The FDA considers restaurants to be outside its jurisdiction. The Texas Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division has never prosecuted a restaurant for menu fraud, an A.G. official confirms. And while Steve McAndrews, director of the Texas Department of Health's Retail Food Division, thinks species substitution or other misrepresentation of fish is illegal under the health code, he says his office wouldn't be the one to enforce it. Most Texas restaurants are regulated by the more than 100 city and county health departments in the state, he says. The state agency regulates only rural areas that fall through the cracks.

So I started calling city agencies. The Dallas health department never returned my call. But Mario Seminara, the Austin-Travis County health department manager, pointed me to the "truth in menu" laws.

"It's 229.164, section p and q, of the health code," he says. "The law requires food to be accurately identified according to FDA and USDA standards. And subsection 2A says, 'Food shall be offered for human consumption in a way that does not mislead or misinform the consumer.' " There's also a section that says menu claims have to be substantiated.

"Are the FDA's approved names for fish the legal identification?" I ask Seminara. "Yes," he says. "If I choose to enforce it that way. But I've never had a complaint."

Houston's health department director Chirag Bhatt doesn't seem to think truth in menu issues are under his jurisdiction, so I ask him to look up 229.164, p and q. (Thanks, Mario.) After reading the law, Bhatt agrees that maybe his office is the right place to call with fish fraud complaints after all.

"But unless it was safety-related," he says, "we would tell them to contact the state attorney general's office. That's who we feel should handle these kinds of problems."

With no government agency to look out for fish fraud, consumers have to fend for themselves. "Education is the key," says the FDA's Mary Snyder. Consumers should learn about different kinds of fish at the grocery store and cook them at home, the seafood expert advises. When you become familiar with how a fish tastes and what it looks like, it becomes harder for a restaurant to pull one over on you.

If a restaurant makes a point of saying "Gulf red snapper," and the fish costs $20 or more, you are probably getting the truth. The fish is often served with the skin or tail to allay any doubt. But beware of "red snapper" that the restaurant concedes doesn't come from the Gulf -- it could be anything. Also watch out for "lobster" that isn't Maine lobster, and the generic terms "sea bass" and "snapper," which are now used to describe cheap frozen fillets from all over the world. "I also think restaurants should tell you when fish is farm-raised," says Robert Del Grande. But since nearly all salmon, catfish and redfish served in restaurants are farm-raised, there's probably not much point.

Top restaurants are generally a better bet than low-end places when it comes to fish. Cafe Annie, Aries, Ruggles Grill and Tony's put the name of the fish in writing on the menu so there's no mistake. Other high-end seafood spots like Goode Company Seafood and Tony Mandola's list specials on a chalkboard or separate sheet of paper. Vallone's, Pappadeaux, Tampico and others actually put the fish out on display.

But even at expensive restaurants you can sometimes get the runaround. I stopped by Mark's American Cuisine at lunchtime recently and asked what the fish special was. "Snapper," said the waiter.

"What kind of snapper?" I asked.

"Goldentail snapper," he said. When I looked puzzled, he added, "It's from Hawaii, it tastes like sea bass."

When I asked chef-owner Mark Cox about the goldentail snapper, he replied that there is no such fish. The waiter must have confused golden tile fish with Gulf red snapper, both of which were on the menu, Cox said. But the waiter's assuredness and his ad-lib about Hawaii suggests a different explanation. More likely, he was using the tried and true "snapper" ruse because customers respond to the fake name better than they do to tile fish.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh