Ninety-five percent of the sushi restaurants, 52 percent of other restaurants and 27 percent of grocery stores surveyed sold mislabeled seafood. While academics, consumer groups and media outlets in the United States and elsewhere have scrutinized fish labeling before and found major errors, Oceana’s effort is one of the largest seafood investigations to date.
In its study, Oceana did not mention the names of the food stores, restaurants and sushi houses it visited because the group cannot identify specifically where in the distribution chain the fraud occurred. If you ask those in the fish business, they likewise have different ideas on where the mislabeling begins.
Bob Kinkead, the veteran chef and restaurateur behind such seafood emporiums as the recently shuttered
Kinkead’s, said the deception can occur anywhere along the distribution chain but notes that some suppliers prey on ignorant chefs. “I think chefs are uninformed” on species of fish, said Kinkead, who recently opened Ancora in the Watergate. “It’s not dishonesty. It’s carelessness.”
Darren Lee Norris, co-owner of Kushi Izakaya & Sushi near Mount Vernon Square, however, pointed a finger directly at restaurateurs. “I think it comes down to a restaurant or chef who’s trying to buy something cheaper and jazz it up and call it something else.”
The technology to conduct species tests has become relatively inexpensive and widely available in recent years, said Prof. Mahmood Shivji of Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who has conducted genetic testing on fish species since 2007 and advised Oceana on its study.
Although agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have genetics laboratories, Shivji said, “they are really bogged down. They don’t have enough personnel, the workload is huge and they don’t have the money” to conduct routine tests.
The Food and Drug Administration tests less than 1 percent of seafood sold in the United States for fraud, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report.
Steven Wilson of NOAA’s seafood inspection program, said he thinks the rate of species substitution “is very low,” averaging less than 5 percent.
He said purveyors are much more likely to inflate the weight of the seafood they’re selling, by adding water. Inspectors have found inaccurate weight counts 40 percent of the time, Wilson said.