Your tuna tartar might be a phony, according to a new study of New York City seafood purveyors.
Researchers for Oceana, a non-profit ocean conservation organization, analyzed the DNA of 142 fish products bought from 81 grocery stores and restaurants. They found seafood that didn't match up genetically with its label at 58 percent of the locations, covering 39 percent of the total seafood bought. While 56 percent of grocery stores and 63 percent of restaurants served mislabeled fish, a full 100 percent of sushi restaurants tested had bogus items on the menu. (That’s not the only fish that’s fishy. One in 3 omega-3 supplements are mislabeled, a recent study found. Click here to find out which pills are bogus—and which brands passed the test.)
That doesn't necessarily mean the stores and restaurants themselves are to blame. “The mislabeling could have started with the supplier, the processor, or even at the dock,” says study coauthor Beth Lowell. Fishermen may try to pass off fish caught out of season, at too small a size, or in defiance of conservation protections. And unlike beef, or even apples, seafood is often poorly tracked from its source.
But the end result is the same: someone passing off a cheaper fish you've probably never heard of as an expensive, desirable dish. The most commonly faked meat was tuna—94 percent of it was a different fish. The impostor was most often escolar, a type of mackerel that's likely to give you diarrhea. Calling a fish “red snapper” was used to disguise 10 different types of fish, including tilapia, porgy, and tilefish (which is notoriously high in mercury). (Enjoy the health benefits of fish without the mercury and other hazardous chemicals. Just stick to our list of the 10 Best Mercury-Free Fish.)
It didn't even matter whether the fish was served at an expensive restaurant, either. Both top-dollar and cheap joints were found to be selling fish that was labeled wrong. At sushi restaurants, there's an added layer of difficulty in translating from Japanese names of fish to English. “Sushi dates back before we invented taxonomy, so they named fish based on shape,” says Casson Trenor, author of Sustainable Sushi, and owner of the Tataki Sushi Bar in San Francisco. For example, what the Japanese call tilapia roughly translates as “fresh water snapper,” thus it winds up on sushi menus as “red snapper.”
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With a seafood bait-and-switch risking both your health and the environment—not to mention being just plain shady—you'll want to be more careful about the fish you buy. Here's how:
New York, a city where most people lack cars and hand-carry their groceries home, is flush with small grocery stores that aren't part of a big corporation. Unfortunately, those mom and pop stores were most likely to be selling fraudulent fish. “Some of the bigger companies have internal accountability procedures, where they can track the fish from the boats to the plate,” Lowell says. But not all supermarkets take the same care. Use Greenpeace's ranking of sustainable seafood counters in their most recent “Carting Away the Oceans” report as your guide. Safeway currently tops the list, followed by Target, Wegman's, and Whole Foods.
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If you're lucky enough to live on the coast, your city probably has a great wholesale market like Seattle's Pike Place Market or New York's Fulton Fish Market, where you can actually talk to the fishmongers to find out where their seafood is from. Otherwise, you can buy online from dedicated purveyors of sustainable seafood like I Love Blue Sea or Vital Choice. “They go on the boat and check out the source, so they know exactly what that fish is,” says Becky Selengut, author of Good Fish. Fair warning: Shipping charges can be pricey.
Find Chefs Who Care
Download the “Seafood Watch” app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium for your iPhone or Android. “Check to see if you're being served fish from the aquarium's “avoid” list of fish that harms the environment,” says Selengut. The app even has a Yelp-like feature where users can post where they've found responsibly sourced seafood in your area.
It's not hard to learn the Japanese words for your three or four favorite types of sushi, which are usually accurate on the menu—even if the English translation is off. And look for menus that can be easily swapped out, or a white board or chalkboard listing the daily specials. Sushi that changes with the seasons—or daily—is prepared by someone who is meticulous about the fish they buy.
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Research and writing by Denny Watkins