Actually, considering the widespread ignorance of seafood varieties in the USA, I’m surprised it’s only a third.
Please don’t get angry. If you’re a seafood expert, I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to the other 95 % of the people.
Let me first make a confession that has been bothering me for many years. Decades, in fact.
I was a waiter at a seafood restaurant in Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco in the 80’s. That’s not the confession, though – it gets worse. Most of the customers were Americans who, while they said they liked fish, actually preferred either fried fish buried in tartar sauce or grilled swordfish that has minimal fishy flavor. Bones were an absolute no-go zone for most of them. This meant that the best fish in the world, and the best flavors, were completely unwanted.
Among the overcooked, over-sauced and only relatively fresh fish to be had at Fisherman’s Wharf, we served an “abalone steak.” It tasted actually very much like squid that has been pounded out flat to form a thin filet. Almost nobody knew any better, since abalone was expensive (I think $32 at the time, compared to the other $8-$18 fish items. This was a long time ago.). A local fisherman confided to me that much of the “abalone” in restaurants was in fact just squid. The cooking method, sauted with egg batter and a heavy sauce, as well as the pounding it out into a filet shape, buried whatever identifying properties real abalone would have had anyway. The same fisherman said that the mislabeling of many fish we buy starts on the fishing boat – fish are named so that they can sell easily and fetch a higher price. And Americans are so generally unfamiliar with most fish varieties that it’s easy to do.
Now the confession. A woman came in one night with a party of eight, and she was clearly trying to impress them. They ordered a variety of dishes, and her order (I thought) was for red snapper. (Which, as we now may guess, possibly wasn’t red snapper at all – but it was only $8.95, so who cares?) Her dinner went fine, her guests were happy, she was happy, everybody was happy. Then, as her dishes were cleared away, she said to me – in front of all her guests – “Waiter, I’ve eaten a lot of abalone, but that was by far the best abalone I have ever had.”
I smiled, and immediately went back to the kitchen to double check the order. Sure enough, she had eaten the $8.95 snapper, not the $32 “abalone filet.” What could I do? I would spoil her meal (not to mention my tip) by telling her the truth. She would be upset, and worse, embarrassed about praising the abalone so highly in front of everyone. So, I simply rewrote the check, changing her snapper to abalone and bumping the price up accordingly.
And this was how it went in what was supposed to be a famous seafood destination in San Francisco.
It has been a long time since I waited tables, but I don’t see much of a difference even today. People generally avoid the subtle flavors of smaller fish, and especially the bones, in favor of chickeny tasting or fried fish. Even the sushi tends to be heavy in wasabi and other extras to bury the actual fish taste.
So no surprise that testing revealed 33% of all fish sold to be mislabeled.
From 2010 to 2012, Oceana conducted one of the largest seafood fraud investigations in the world to date, collecting more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states to determine if they were honestly labeled.
DNA testing found that one-third (33 percent) of the 1,215 samples analyzed nationwide were mislabeled, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines.
Of the most commonly collected fish types, samples sold as snapper and tuna had the highest mislabeling rates (87 and 59 percent, respectively), with the majority of the samples identified by DNA analysis as something other than what was found on the label. In fact, only seven of the 120 samples of red snapper purchased nationwide were actually red snapper. The other 113 samples were another fish.
They go on to call for traceability and other legislation for seafood. I think DNA certified fish may become rather common, though I am wary of yet more government regulations that seem to cause more problems than they solve. Consumer demand would be the best way to spur change. But before that, people need to broaden their tastes, and learn about the wonderful yet unappreciated fish varieties that are out there.