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Fish frequently mislabeled in L.A. restaurants and stores

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Tests on seafood sold at Los Angeles sushi bars, restaurants and grocery stores have revealed that more than half is not labeled correctly, a nonprofit organization is reporting today. Red Snapper, Dover sole, white tuna and other fish were often different species, the group Oceana found in DNA tests of seafood from 74 retail outlets in L.A. In all, 55% of 119 fish samples from across Los Angeles were misidentified, Oceana said.

Oceana focused on the frequency of mislabeling rather than its origins. But Beth Lowell, director of the Stop Seafood Fraud campaign at Oceana’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, said the fraud can occur at any point in the supply chain, beginning when the fish is landed and through to processing, distribution and final point of sale.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration prohibits so-called species substitution. Still, the practice remains prevalent. Consumer Reports found that 18% of seafood samples its researchers collected from retail stores and restaurants on the East Coast last year was mislabeled. A 2011 investigation by the Boston Globe reported that 48% of the fish it collected from Boston restaurants, grocery stores and seafood markets was sold with the wrong species name.

FDA spokesman Douglas Karas said the agency is working to determine how often, or at what point in the supply chain, fish substitution occurs. Most of the seafood fraud complaints the FDA receives come from consumers at the retail level, Karas said. The FDA is  conducting a yearlong DNA test of about 800 fish collected across the nation.

In California, state Sen. Ted Lieu (D-San Pedro) introduced SB 1486 in February to require large restaurant chains to label seafood accurately by species and country of origin and also indicate whether it is farmed or wild.

 Lieu said the bill, which Oceana supports, addresses the health implications of seafood mislabeling. He cited a U.S. Centers for Disease Control statistic that imported food is one of the main causes of disease outbreaks in the United States. Eighty-six percent of all seafood consumed in the United States is imported, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In the L.A. samples, red snapper was misidentified 100% of the time, DNA tests showed. Tilapia and pollock were popular substitutes, the report said. Dover sole was discovered to be Asian “sutchi catfish” or common sole, and white tuna was often actually escolar, a snake mackerel with known diarrheal effects. The fish has been banned in some countries.

Sushi restaurants had the highest incidence of mislabeling in L.A., the study found. Oceana reported that 87% of the samples of 10 types of fish it took from 21 sushi eateries were not correctly identified.
All of the red snapper sushi sampled was mislabeled. Half of it was tilapia. Eighty-nine percent of the white tuna sampled at sushi restaurants turned out to be escolar.

Samples of yellowtail sold at sushi restaurants were often  Japanese amberjack. Flounder was frequently sold as halibut, and sea bream was substituted for sea bass.

The study found that albacore, blue fin tuna, flounder and sockeye salmon were all labeled properly in sushi restaurants.

The main motivation for seafood fraud is economics. It’s more profitable to sell an inexpensive fish that can pass for one that costs significantly more, especially if many consumers don’t know the difference.

Sometimes, as with red snapper and Chilean sea bass, the desired species isn’t easily available because it is overfished. Sellers mislabel those species “so people can still get what they hope they’re getting,” said Kimberly Warner, senior scientist on Oceana’s L.A. report.

Oceana did not identify the restaurants or grocery stores it sampled.

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--Susan Carpenter

Photo credit: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times

 
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