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Sushi DNA Testing Uncovers Fraud

Two teenage girls from Manhattan had the bright idea to test 60 sushi samples to see if they were getting what they paid for. Guess what?

http://www.cnn.com/2008/TECH/science/...

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  1. Great story. Wish they would have "named names" since truth is a complete defense in a case like this. I think it is especially telling that all "substitutions" were cheaper fish for more expensive fish. Thanks for bringing this to the board, ferret.

    1. First one should know that "white tuna" is most often escolar. If you ask the sushi chefs they will freely admit tell you this. How one can pass off even white tuna be it albacore or escolar with any spices of tilapia is beyond me.

      Some fish like snapper with smaller more delicate flakes can be subed with other fish and it would be hard to tell once it's on your plate. I might even be hard to tell if you are a chef and receive a big block of frozen fish fillets what that fish is. Here in Florida there has been a lot of reporting of fake grouper being used. Grouper is one of the most requested fish in our area. They did a lot of DNA testing of restaurant meals and found surprising results. Some very good restaurants were not giving their customers what they ordered.

      From a related article in the NYT, Eric Ripert responds

      “It is impossible to mislead people who have knowledge,” said Eric Ripert, the chef at Le Bernardin and a man who is to seafood what Capt. Frederick Pabst once was to beer.

      Mr. Ripert was kind enough to take a moment from his lunch rush to suggest that one would have to be an amateur to uncomplainingly consume a “halibut” that, in fact, was a mackerel or even worse, as the high-school students found, a “white tuna” that was actually tilapia.

      “It is like the difference between a rabbit and a chicken,” he explained.

      1 Reply
      1. re: scubadoo97

        “It is impossible to mislead people who have knowledge,” said Eric Ripert, the chef at Le Bernardin

        If that's true then it means that we either have a lot of "chefs" with a shocking lack of knowledge or a lot of chefs who are crooked.

      2. They tested fish, not sushi!!!!!

        Thanks for posting. I was going to do so as well yesterday, but it slipped though the cracks. My comment is that the two students did really good science. They came up with a useful question that affects many of us (what fish are we eating?); applied state-of-the-art methods, taking advantage of recent advances; and conducted the (small sample) study in a careful and precise way. Very, very good.

        And the results should be slightly disturbing for those who eat fish without starting with a whole fish.

        Finally, while "fraud" may be implicit, the author of the article makes the point that that fraud is not necessarily on the part of the restaurant or cook--but could be anywhere along the chain from water to plate.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Sam Fujisaka

          Because a restaurant owner couldn't tell the difference between tilapia and white tuna? Or a sushi chef wouldn't know?

          1. re: Sam Fujisaka

            "small sample" is a qualifier that is being ignored by most of the reports I've seen on this story. They went to a total of 4 restaurants and 10 grocery stores. (And if you're buying sushi in a grocery store? well, caveat emptor my friend). Even the NYT, the source of the story, in a follow-up story, has a picture caption which describes it as a science project that found "widespread sushi mislabeling."
            http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/23/nyr...

            Widespread? Really?

            Plus, the fact that "white tuna" is almost never tuna, but often escolar, has long been (relatively) common knowledge, another caveat emptor for those who may be concerned about escolar's surprising "side effects".
            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Escolar
            (go to "Effects of consumption").

            1. re: Sam Fujisaka

              You know things like *this* could would be a much more practical thing for Tim Allan and his "Food Detectives" to do then those lame food myths. Provide and *actual* service instead of nonsense.

              Not as entertaining, one might say? And yet how many decades have shows like 60 Minutes and Dateline held top ratings spots by being informative!

            2. I'm still reeling from this report. It's outrageous that people are being misled about precisely what kind of food they are buying!

              In response to Frodnesor, the "grocery stores" included at least some seafood specialty markets (including the sole one identified by name, and which passed the DNA ID tests with 100% accuracy, one Leonards’ Seafood and Prime Meats), although it's true that the number of stores and restaurants visited was small and we were not told whether seafood markets had a higher accuracy rate than other grocery shops.

              And is anyone really surprised that the chefs at the high-end restaurants would poo poo a report like this and insist that discerning diners could never be fooled by bait and switch?
              Of course those restauranteurs and all others in the business will insist that nothing like this could happen in their shop. The same way that all restaurants always insist that their standards are up to local health codes, until their failing health department inspection scores are revealed in the newspapers or on the evening news broadcast.

              And Chef Ripert's comment that it's impossible to mislead people who have knowledge is insulting to those of us who would like to be able to enjoy sushi on occasion without having earned a degree in piscatory culinary arts.

              I have no problem whatsoever with a restaurant or seafood market selling generic 'sushi' and pricing it as such. But it is unacceptable for sushi made with a lower-cost type of seafood to be passed off as something it is not when the customer is paying for the more expensive item.

              This report is just another reminder that when there's a buck to be made, you can expect someone to try to rip you off (and probably get away with it). Restaurants and produce markets are, at the end of the day, still businesses. I think a lot of customers would be horrified to learn that the "organic" produce for which they gladly pay a premium is really "conventional." And that they have been consuming genetically-modified food which they have been misled to believe is otherwise. And that the fancy bottled spring water is really just tap water.

              6 Replies
              1. re: racer x

                "And Chef Ripert's comment that it's impossible to mislead people who have knowledge is insulting to those of us who would like to be able to enjoy sushi on occasion without having earned a degree in piscatory culinary arts."

                racer, I'm pretty sure Chef Ripert was talking about the chefs and not the general public. Most often when these misrepresentations are brought to light the chefs or restaurant owners say they didn't know and that their suppliers mislead them.

                1. re: scubadoo97

                  that's even more egregious. idiot chefs serving food that are mislabeled? If you serve something you should know what you're serving. don't blame it on the supplier. If you serve rat as chicken, do you think anyone cares that the person who sold you the rat calls it a chicken? quality control is with the restaurant, not the restaurant supplier.

                2. re: racer x

                  racer x - where have you seen any information given as to the restaurants and stores sampled? NYT (the original source) has only described them as "unnamed restaurants and grocery stores," the only one named being the one you mentioned. The most you can conclude is that the sample group included ONE specialty seafood market.

                  The accessibility of the scientific verification is indeed interesting - the significance of the results, given the puny sample size, though, is prone to overstatement.

                  1. re: Frodnesor

                    Here in the Tampa Bay area many restaurants were named in a DNA sting investigation targeting grouper. Some claimed ignorance and blamed their suppliers. IF you're grouper is limited to fried grouper sandwiches and you are buying frozen grouper from Asia it maybe hard to know what you are really getting but there was a restaurant which will remain nameless that was serving a champagne group special that was over $30 that was in fact tilapia. Now it's hard to plead ignorance here. There is no way these two fish look anything alike even if you are only looking at fillets and not the whole fish.

                    Is there fraud in the industry. Absolutely. Are there restaurants that are not actively trying to deceive but close their eyes and don't want to know. Absolutely. Are their restaurants that strive to offer the best products and make sure they are not in a position to serve fish that they are not sure of. Absolutely.

                    1. re: scubadoo97

                      Battered & fried is a whole 'nother matter entirely. There's a place near me that does excellent fried fish and has easily a dozen options daily. They bread it and fry to order so you can see what you're getting but I'm absolutely guilty of mixing up the bags on occasion and having to guess which is which -- not always obvious. On the other hand sushi is about the subtle flavors and textures of "fresh" fish. Now I can see substituting one tuna for another or one type of salmon for another, but charging a premium for fish and then substituting chum is pretty bad.

                      1. re: scubadoo97

                        The preponderance of fraud with regard to grouper and red snapper in Florida and elsewhere persists because there is no penalty for the infraction. They all play dumb and blame another in the supply chain. I've yet to hear of a culpable party spending a night in jail or paying a fine.
                        Sushi chefs, on the other hand, are personally responsible for the freshness and integrity of everything they serve, from the ocean to your plate. They are experts who cannot be fooled. In my experiences, I have never encountered a sushi chef who would wander from the highest standards.

                  2. this isn't new, there was a similar thread a year ago about snapper based on this article.
                    http://www.suntimes.com/news/metro/37...

                    though some of the switches mentioned in the other article are rather ridiculous considering they're hardly similar at all. it's true... some people wouldn't probably notice if it was a shoe instead, as long as it was fresh.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: pinstripeprincess

                      I didn't see the earlier thread, so thanks for posting that link to the Chicago Sun-Times article. The information in that article should silence the naysayers in the present thread:

                      "In the United States, the Congressional Research Service -- Congress' research arm -- issued a report last month [April 2007] citing a government survey that found 37 percent of fish examined by the National Marine Fisheries Service were mislabeled. A separate survey by the Fisheries Service found a whopping 80 percent of red snapper was mislabeled."

                      The fact that both the FDA official and the seafood industry trade group president who were quoted agreed that there is a problem is alarming. (How often do government regulators and trade groups who are subject to regulation agree?)

                      I'm surprised this issue hasn't gotten more attention among the wider public before now.

                    2. When I read this article in the NYT today, it was no big surprise. As a graduate of the University of Guelph in Canada, ichthyologists or "fish biologists", have been extensively aware of the fraud, intentionally or unintentionally, in the sale of fish at grocery stores, private fish mongers and restaurants for decades. Given the current crisis facing many of our fresh and saltwater fish stocks all across the world, it really does put eating seafood in perspective.

                      1. Veggo writes: "The preponderance of fraud with regard to grouper and red snapper in Florida and elsewhere persists because there is no penalty for the infraction."

                        According to the Sun-Times article linked to by pinstripeprincess above, mislabeling fish can be punished with up to $2,000 in fines in Chicago, yet a spokesperson for the city's department of consumer services was quoted as saying he was unaware of anyone being cited for an infraction.

                        Should there be specific laws penalizing mislabeling of fish (ie, beyond existing laws that cover fraud)?
                        And should government resources be used to police this part of the food industry (eg routine covert DNA testing?), or is this too low a priority on which to waste government resources?

                        5 Replies
                        1. re: racer x

                          Florida has specific laws regarding mislabeling of food products - i.e. grouper - and apparently has imposed prison sentences for violations.

                          http://www.fl-seafood.com/consumers/g...
                          http://www.jacksonville.com/tu-online...

                          1. re: racer x

                            An enforcement agency that would be fiscally neutral, i.e. fines for infractions would equal administrative costs, would be a wonderful thing for consumers. I suspect there are almost as many thieves to be caught as there are fish.

                            1. re: Veggo

                              I know, we could call it the FDA!

                              1. re: HarryK

                                Wouldn't this kind of investigation be more effectively executed by local agencies?
                                Unfortunately, if I am right about that, we won't be seeing any move in this direction any time soon in New York, given the current financial woes of the state and local governments.