Southern California Fish: A Tale of Mistaken Identity

Attention Southern California seafood aficionados: a recent report carried out by environmental advocacy group Oceana sheds light on a trend of mislabeling fish being bought and sold at restaurants and grocery stores in Los Angeles and Orange counties.  In the course of the study that began last year, Oceana collected and tested DNA from 119 fish samples taken from merchants who remained unnamed in the report.  Focusing on species most commonly misrepresented—soles, yellow tail, wild salmon, red snapper, and white tuna—the goal of the study was to determine just how often the wrong fish made it to California plates.

In all, the study found that the majority of seafood tested was mislabeled; and sushi restaurants proved to be the guiltiest of parties.  Eighty-seven percent of fish that were tested from sushi restaurants turned out to be falsely classified.  Snapper turned out to be the most commonly mislabeled fish species, with every sample being incorrectly labeled.  In “snapper” cases, tilapia had been substituted at least half of the time.   And snapper was not the only example: Japanese amberjack was found to be often sold as yellowtail, halibut as flounder, and sea bream as sea bass. 

In 89% of cases, white tuna was switched out for the snake mackerel, escolar—a species known for its diarrheal effects.  Which brings up another important point, the health of the consumer.  According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), food imported from other countries is one of the leading causes of outbreaks in disease in the United States. Dr. Hannah Gould, of the CDC’s Division of Foodborne, Waterborne and Environmental Diseases, explains in an article on the agency’s website: “As our food supply becomes more global, people are eating foods from all over the world, potentially exposing them to germs from all corners of the world, too.”  Furthermore, “We saw an increased number of outbreaks due to imported foods during recent years, and more types of foods from more countries causing outbreaks.”

In addition to the mislabeling of fish species, the country of the animal’s origin is often times left out as well.  And under federal regulation, species substation is illegal as it is fraud.  For the time being, plans for a future investigation is pending to decide when and where the swapping of fish takes place; if not in the restaurant and grocery store level, than when in the buyer/seller chain?

For California State Senator Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), this mislabeling is a serious issue and the reason behind Senate Bill 1486, a new legislation that he drafted and introduced to the California Senate in February of this year.  “I was very surprised at the scale of how much this was going on,” Lieu expressed his concern over the newest Oceana report.  “A consumer would be paying for a more expensive kind of fish when in fact they’re getting a cheaper kind of fish, and it could be from a foreign country, which means they might have a higher chance of getting sick from eating it.”

With concerns of fraud and consumer safety set aside, this is a problem that is entirely fixable.  Under SB 1486, California restaurants would be required to not only label fish species properly, but also to disclose the animal’s country of origin. The next step is urging California State representatives to approve SB 1486, and you could do that by signing the petition here.


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