What’s In a Name?

By Rebecca Gardon

Fish on ice at Catalina OffshoreRecently media has been rumbling about mislabeling of seafood and fish fraud.  It’s clear that people are genuinely confused about seafood. We don’t blame them.

Recent studies by ocean conservationist group Oceana report that roughly one-third of U.S seafood is mislabeled. Customers unknowingly may get duped when restaurants and grocery stores substitute a cheaper fish such as tilapia for a more expensive one such as red snapper. Think of it like paying for filet mignon but getting hamburger meat instead. That’s outright fraud, and it’s also illegal.

The idea of seafood mislabeling on the other hand isn’t so black and white, and making distinctions is important.

There’s a lot to consider and retailers are in a tough spot. The FDA recognizes 1,700 marketable fish; however, states have their own guidelines and sometimes state and federal law disagree. In California for example, 13 species of rockfish can be labeled and sold as Pacific red snapper. Yet for someone looking to eat actual snapper, only the species true red snapper fits the bill.

Some fish may be coined with alternative names for marketing purposes. Chilean seabass is actually the more intimidating-sounding Patagonian toothfish. And what sushi restaurants sometimes serve as white tuna or king tuna isn’t tuna at all – it’s escolar. To complicate matters further, escolar might also be labeled on a menu as butterfish, a term that can also apply to the entirely different sablefish, which also goes by black cod.

What can a fish fan do?

  • Buy your seafood from a trusted fishmonger.  We simply cannot stress this enough.
  • Ask questions. What is the true name of the fish? What are its common or alternate names? Where was it harvested? How was it harvested? A trusted fishmonger will know these answers and be more than happy to educate you.
  • Put chefs on the spot. Chefs who truly care about what they’re putting on your plate already have a trusted fishmonger and should be able to answer your questions. They’re busy but having one visit your table is great for business and a fun connection for your return trip.
  • Pay attention to prices. If you think a price is so low that it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Generally speaking – unless your trusted source is offering a great deal, you should expect to pay more for high quality seafood. Again, think of the filet mignon and the hamburger meat example.
  • Don’t be afraid to purchase a whole fish which is much harder to mislabel than fillets. And, it makes for a great family meal.
  • Try new fish and compare it side-by-side with your favorites. By comparing texture, smell and flavor, you’ll become your own expert.

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