Think that tai sushi you're eating is red snapper? It's far more likely to be tilapia, says Oceana, a Washington, D.C.-based ocean conservancy organization. This isn't a new concern, of course. Former Houston Press food critic Robb Walsh wrote a scathing exposé of the issue back in 2001, "Fish Fraud," in which he documented the red snapper substitutions rampant in Texas. And yet the problem persists.
Last week, Oceana released a new study in which it found 33 percent of the fish samples it analyzed from across the United States were mislabeled. The most frequently swapped-out fish? Snapper and tuna, which had mislabeling rates of 87 percent and 59 percent respectively.
The two-year-long study analyzed 1,215 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states, and found that Texas was one of the worst offenders. According to Oceana's data, nearly half the fish sold in retail outlets and restaurants in Texas is mislabeled. The only other areas of the country worse at telling escolar from white tuna were Southern California (52 percent of its samples were mislabeled) and Pennsylvania (56 percent).
These findings echo previous studies done by outlets ranging from Consumer Reports and the Chicago Sun-Times to the University of North Carolina, which found in 2004 that 77 percent of fish being sold as red snapper was actually another species entirely. Mislabeling seafood is illegal, although the Food and Drug Administration -- which is responsible for monitoring this area -- typically focuses its efforts on food safety, not food fraud.
"It is very difficult for consumers to purchase a real red snapper in Austin and Houston," the Oceana study reported. "None of the eight 'red snapper' samples tested were true red snapper; three were tilapia, two were breams and three were less expensive snapper species."
Dr. Kimberley Warner, report author and senior scientist at Oceana, says that although the sample size in Texas was small -- with only five samples from Houston analyzed -- the results were on par with the same seafood fraud that's occurring across the nation, especially in restaurants. While 38 percent of restaurants carried mislabeled fish in Oceana's study, only 18 percent of retail outlets had fish swaps.
"You have stronger labeling requirements in grocery stores," Warner says. "Right up front you see a bit more information about your seafood than on a printed menu." On the other hand, restaurants -- "sushi bars in particular," Warner said -- are worse about mislabeling their seafood and offering that tilapia in place of red snapper, "unless a customer asks a lot of questions."
A whopping 74 percent of sushi restaurants were selling mislabeled fish, which means customers need to be particularly discerning when it comes to ordering their next piece of nigiri -- especially in Texas.
"Every sushi sample purchased in Texas was mislabeled," the study reported. "Escolar was swapped for white tuna in both sushi venues where it was purchased, which is a fish that can cause unpleasant digestive effects in some who eat too much."
More troubling, however, are the high mercury level swaps, in which fish with high levels of methylmercury are subbed for supposedly safer fish.
"The most egregious substitutions," Warner says, "were king mackerel swapped out as grouper in Florida and tilefish being swapped out as red snapper and halibut in New York."
"Those instances weren't extremely common, but to find them at all was disturbing to me," Warner says. High amounts of methylmercury are typically found in large, predatory fish like black bass, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish. Excessive consumption of these types of fish can be toxic for certain groups of people, such as pregnant women and children.
And not even salmon, that most recognizable of fish, is safe from swaps, says Warner.
"The kind of salmon fraud that had been reported in the past was farmed salmon being substituted for wild-caught Atlantic salmon," Warner says.
Farmed salmon has been spotlighted in recent years as a poor alternative to its wild-caught kin, for reasons ranging from high concentrations of several cancer-causing substances in the farm-raised fish to the pollution that degrades ocean waters around salmon farms and puts wild-caught populations at risk of disease.
In a bit of good news, however, Warner says that because 2012 was "a spectacular year for sockeye salmon," the wild-caught fish was abundant and the prices correspondingly lower. And where there's not much room to make money, there are fewer instances of fraud. In almost all the states where salmon was tested -- including Texas -- most of the samples tested as bona fide wild-caught salmon, as did the samples of mahi mahi and wahoo.
Another silver lining, says Warner, is that as a result of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, supply chains for Gulf seafood feature much more transparency than in other parts of the world. And it's supply chains where the fraud is occurring; restaurants and grocery stores aren't willingly mislabeling food, after all. They're getting sold fraudulent products.
Warner praised the "traceable seafood that is available in the Gulf," encouraging Gulf Coast residents to "seek that out and support the people that are doing the right thing."
Examples of these traceable supply chains close to home include retail operations like P.J. Stoop's weekly by-catch sale at Revival Market and restaurants such as the always-reliable Captain Benny's boats that are scattered around Houston. Captain Benny's has bought its seafood from a single distributor -- Dutchman's Seafood -- since opening, and elaborated on its Facebook page last week:
Dutchman's Seafood had been a long time player in the Houston seafood business, dating back to the 1940's. Once owning and operating their own shrimp boats, oyster reefs, processing facility, retail outlet and distribution network, Dutchman's was involved in just about every step of the business. ... Today Dutchman's Seafood is still owned by the same family and still sells directly to their own Capt. Benny's Restaurants insuring the quality of the products they offer.
Warner offers similar advice to consumers looking to insure their own seafood-purchasing experiences go well.
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"Establish good relationships with the people you buy your seafood from," she says. "Ask questions. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is."