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Is the fish you buy really the fish?

I watched CBC Marketplace on Friday night. They had a segment on fish where they bought fish from a number of large grocery stores (such as Metro, Sobey's, Loblaws) and then had them DNA tested at the U of Guelph. They found that 20% of the fish was not what they said it was and it was always a less expensive fish or a stainable one posing as a more expensive or unsustainable one (never the other way around which is oddly self-serving). Haddock was beings sold as cod (which was $3/lb more), farmed Atlantic salmon sold as Wild Pacific salmon, fish labelled merely as 'shark' which ended up being a shark that is not supposed to be sold and so on.

When contacted, the head office of each store blamed human error, which seems hard to believe as how does a box that comes in labelled as one fish mysteriously become another and always a more expensive one. Also, 20% seems quite a high human error percentage.

Marketplace said that the only real way to know what fish you are buy is to buy it with the head on (but even then it's difficult to know, especially with salmon I think).

Although this likely would not stop the mislabelling, the show also suggested that fish be better labelled as to the exact species (for example, not just shark, but what type of shark), origin and method of having been caught in order to better help the consumer choose what to buy.

This show, the article in the Toronto Star from last year that a lot of fish sold in sushi restaurants in Toronto is not what they say it is and a NYTimes article in 2005 that the majority of wild salmon sold in NY City stores was not wild is really disconcerting.

I don't buy any fish at grocery stores in Toronto because I think (maybe erroneously) that they are more prone to mislabelling (either intentionally or not) than fishmongers, but am wondering where Chowhounders buy their fish in Toronto and how do you know it is what you think it is? I've been buying most of my fish at Bill's Lobster as they appear to only sell sustainable fish, they tend to have a lot of wild fish and they only sell a small number of species at any one which they appear to know a lot about.

Bill's Lobster
599 Gerrard St E, Toronto, ON M4M, CA

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  1. And then there's the restaurants that don't tell you what fish it is---or when the menu says something, it's ambiguous. And no amount of questioning helps. Like Yueh Tung. I love the fried fish, veg and tofu dish but I can't for any amount of asking find out what fish it is. The menu says "cod loin". What is that? On one occasion, a waiter told me it was black cod, not Atlantic (no one has ever gone out on a limb since then to commit to one or the other). Well, I don't want it if it's black cod since that's a higher mercury fish. If it was the cheaper fish (Atlantic cod), I'd be happy. Very frustrating.

    Fish labelling really needs to improve--it needs to fall under a municipal bylaw (or become provincially regulated). As it currently stands, no one cares that menus are misleading about food choices.

    Yueh Tung
    126 Elizabeth St, Toronto, ON M5G, CA

    1. Two comments about that show-the sheer disregard the Minister had for the buying public "There was 78% compliance, that's great!" ( I held back from throwing something at my TV) and the fish retailer who said to simply ask where the fish comes from...even at SLM would you get a straight, knowledgeable answer?

      9 Replies
      1. re: Wiley

        During the past year, I noticed an alarming growing number of Chinese restaurants using the much cheaper fresh water Tilapia filet as substitutes for the more expensive salt water Garoupa, cod and sole filets. This is especially common in 'fried' dishes with cream or sweet/sour sauces. The latter tends to mask out the distinctive 'muddy' taste usually associated with Tilapia. Another common substitute is the 'Bassa' which I have no clue of its origin or species. Any establishment who tried to pull a quick one like this in Japan will see the wrath of both the consumers and the government come down FAST on them. Here in Canada, unfortunately its one of those area where the government just like to turn a blind eye on!!

        1. re: Charles Yu

          Basa is a catfish from the Mekong river in Vietnam. It is a mild white fish and i believe it is farmed although i am not 100% on that.

          1. re: Charles Yu

            I don't recall Tilapia tasting "muddy" so maybe it's not tilapia they're using. To me and most of my family the tilapia we eat has a clean taste. Now trout, no matter how or where it's prepared, has always had a "muddy" taste for me, though I don't think it would be trout either. Maybe it is tilapia, but from a contaminated source.

            As well look at all the restos that have some dish with crab, yet they're using the imitation crab meat (made from fish, formed into long sticks and coloured with a red stripe).

            1. re: scarberian

              I had two steamed 'live' Tilapia in Vancouver last week and both had 'muddy' taste!!. Any ways, the taste of the fish just doesn't seem 'natural' to me compare to 'salt water' fish?!!

              1. re: Charles Yu

                I find this when comparing fresh- to salt-water fish when the fish quality isn't very good. The salt-water fish tastes like an ocean and the fresh-water fish tastes like a lake. Most obvious was a catfish I had once.

          2. re: Wiley

            I too was absolutely appalled at the government official in that CBC Marketplace investigation who focused on the 78% compliance as being great rather than those not in compliance. She didn't seem to care at all about the mislabelling which I see as outright fraud.

            1. re: Flexitarian

              Yes, appalled is the word I would use too. I read a newspaper article that a while back, in Hong Kong, the authorities even did a crackdown on fake alligator meat sold at local stores. They actually put samples through the lab to identify the species as part of the crackdown, because genuine alligator meat, as opposed to counterfeits from lizard or snake, has specific therapeutic properties and fetch a much higher price.

              I wish the authorities here would do something to this effect. Obviously we need someone with a completely different attitude first.

              1. re: Flexitarian

                Yes, what kind of uproar would there be if the butcher counter sold pork as beef 22% of the time?

                1. re: Flexitarian

                  I think the best response to "78% compliance" would be for 22% of us to pay for it with counterfeit currency.

              2. How many GTA fish mongers sell a selection of fresh whole fish relative to anonymous fillets? It's an old problem that's only worsened with skyrocketing demand for fish outside ethnic markets. Apart from the dense ethical minefield surrounding fish purchases, consumers also have to deal with outright fraud--who knew there were so many species of "red snapper"? The cure is tighter regulation at the cost of higher prices. Want better? Want the real deal? Get ready to pay for it.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Kagemusha

                  I think many of us would love to have tighter regulation at the cost of higher prices. And, actually, we likely won't be paying any more for some fish, since now we are often paying higher prices for fish which turns out to be not what they say it is and actually is a less expensive species. With regulation the prices will at least match what we are buying.

                2. I think I missed the boat to learn about how each species of fish tastes like (as in the good old times -- who knows when that was), before everything tends to get mislabelled nowadays, intentionally or unintentionally. I don't even have a chance to know how cod or tilapia or bass or garoupa tastes like anymore because it seems to taste different every time, and people around me all have different opinions about which species tastes like what.

                  And yes, ever since news like this started coming to light, I knew I was playing fish roulette every time I am getting "fish" at the market, grocery store or the monger. I know that even if I happen to know enough to find out a labelling mistake, there is really no one I could hold responsible.

                  Should I skip that nice, big frozen package of "wild salmon" that is priced suspiciously cheap? And should I also suspect the much more expensive chunk of "wild salmon"... because I have more to lose?

                  While at it, I would also like to mention that, these days, every time I ask how fresh the fish is at the grocery or market counter, I always get the answer that it just arrived that day, and if I go further and ask if they mean caught on that day, the answer would be invariably positive too. When the fish is already headless and made into filets, is there a way at all to verify comments like that?

                  17 Replies
                  1. re: tarteaucitron

                    If you wanted to taste the 'real' thing. Reputable Chinese fishmongers/supermarket still sell, for example, 'authentic' fillet of 'Florida wild caught yellow fin garoupa' cut from the whole fish. At around $10.99 per pound (bone included), its not cheap, but its worth every single cent. And you know its the real mcCoy because you can see the head, fin and all. Another 'genuine' fish is Halibut cut from the whole fish.

                    1. re: Charles Yu

                      I have watched Sobey's in Pickering cut from a whole Pacific halibut. And offer the craps for stock. It's about the same price as you have mentioned for garoupa (grouper?) Both are fair prices and quality.

                      1. re: Charles Yu

                        So I should start with a reputable fishmonger, and/or familiarize myself with some pictures of the different kinds of fish. Do you have any such places to recommend in the GTA? It sounds like all hope is not lost then, referring to my rant above. Thanks!

                        1. re: Charles Yu

                          I agree with Charles. Stick with the Chinese supermarkets where they can show you the whole fish. Their customers are real picky about their fish (unlike many customers at say Loblaws or other regular supermarkets). You may not be able to tell whether it's farmed or wild (like salmon for example), but you will definitely be able to see the difference between tilapia and grouper or bass ... or between haddock and cod. Yes, familiarize yourself with what each species looks like!

                          1. re: Charles Yu

                            This only works if you know it when you see it; otherwise, it's 6 sorta lookalike red snapper species sold as "red snapper." Sadly, whole fish is no guarantee of freshness, either.

                            1. re: Charles Yu

                              Charles, can you name some of the reputable places you're referencing so I can give them a try? Anything downtown for example?

                              1. re: Arcadiaseeker

                                The fish counter at your local T&T is a good start!
                                Otherwise I can only recommend those in my area like Foodie mart on Warden and Steeles or the one on the west side of Kennedy just south of the 407. The small Chinese supermarket inside Chalmers on Hwy7 usually have whole ' un-frozen' Ling Cod, Halibut and Yellow fin Garoupa.
                                BTW, I visited Bill's downtown a couple of times and was not at all impressed!.

                                1. re: Charles Yu

                                  Well, if it's uptown, gotta go with the supermarkets at Spadina & 16th or Leslie & Finch. Chalmers is decent, but better to go with the flank steak there (consistently good for a long time).

                                  1. re: Charles Yu

                                    Why were you unimpressed at Bill's?? I've found the freshness there to be very good.

                                    1. re: Charles Yu

                                      I also am not sure why you were not impressed Bill's Lobster, the fish store I tend to prefer. They sell only a limited variety of fish and not everything under the sun, they get regular shipments of fish, they always know how the fish was caught, always have wild fish in addition to farmed and only sell the more sustainable species, they spend time talking to me about the fish and how to cook it, etc and are very friendly. Their store is very clean and the counters are low and you can see everything that is going on.

                                      I've been to Pisces and they are the opposite in many respects. They are not very friendly. The talk to you over a really high counter which makes me feel like it is less personal. They also seem to just want to rush you in and out and not spend time talking to you about the fish. Most of the counter people seem relatively untrained and they appear to be more about volume than anything else.

                                      1. re: Flexitarian

                                        The few times I went, I found Bill's pricing a bit steep, when compared to outfits uptown like Diana's and some other Chinese fish mongers in the Markham/Scarborough area. These include live lobsters, dungeness crabs, wild sockeye salmon , Florida garoupa, red snapper filets and Halibut. And yes, I do find they only have a ' limited variety of fish'. and none 'live ones'!

                                        1. re: Charles Yu

                                          I've never seen live fish at Bill's except for the Spot Prawns (one of the few places in the city that have them when they are in season) and maybe lobster.

                                          I have to check out Diana's as I've heard great things about them, but it's a bit out of the way given I live downtown.

                                          1. re: Flexitarian

                                            A few establishments like Foodie Mart and T&T, both around Warden and Steeles, have tanks upon tanks of live fish. Last week I saw live salt water French Turbot and Thai ' Sung Hok ' not to mention the whole spectrum of fresh water green bass, big mouth bass, catfish, Talipia...etc. In season, they also have exotic products live Ling Cod, snow crab from Japan and abalone.
                                            Its like visiting an aquarium!

                                            1. re: Charles Yu

                                              Sorry but "live" fish aren't necessarily "better." They're starved, stressed, badly-handled and not infrequently near death's door as many are in the T&T tanks. Just think about how far they've traveled. This puts "fresh" in a different light. I've had near-putrid "live" king crab from the briny depths of T&T's tanks. But it's your $...

                                              1. re: Kagemusha

                                                If the king crab is 'near-putrid' why did you still buy it? If I am to dish out so much $ for the crab, I'll definitely check out the product before purchasing! A couple of squeezes of the legs should tell?! Just like checking out the colour of the gills and texture of the flesh when purchasing whole fish!
                                                Buyers beware!!

                                                1. re: Charles Yu

                                                  My point is that the condition was marginal--something that's difficult to tell with shellfish like king crab before it's cooked. T&T's rep for this product isn't exactly stellar. Same goes for their "live" fish or anyone's tanked fish in the GTA. Despite your enthusiasm, it's far from certain they're actually superior to top quality iced fresh fish. There's also a bit of a placebo effect in play eating tanked fish in restos, too, especially when we're a looong way from an ocean. Does Taro sell live fish?

                                                  1. re: Charles Yu

                                                    There is one thing to take note of though, rigor mortis. If you buy live fish, best to use it asap before rigor mortis steps in and stiffens the meat. Or alternatively you can wait until rigor mortis passes, which is probably 24 hrs after death.

                                                    Restaurants w/ tanks don't have to worry about rigor mortis because they're cooked literally right after death, before the meat tenses.

                                2. Restaurants could start doing what I have seen in China. They bring you a selection of live fish, you choose one, and they immediately bludgeon it to death in front of you before taking it back to the kitchen to be prepared.

                                  Since nobody else would ever choose a dead fish, it virtually guarantees that you will be served the fish you selected.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: Jean Georges

                                    They do that here at several Chinese restos I've been to. One in particular is Magic Wok where their tank is in the wall at the center of the restaurant. You can actually see the waiter net the fish and he/she brings it to your table alive for you to inspect.

                                  2. Great (yet disturbing) thread. These days I buy my fish from either:

                                    - St. Lawrence Market fishmongers (so good; and I think/hope they are accurately labelled)
                                    - T&T
                                    - Metro (Bayview & Eg, because it's convenient - hoping for the best re: accuracy! Quality seems decent)

                                    There is a new fishmonger on the Bayview strip in Leaside, east side. Can't remember the name, but I've been meaning to check it out.

                                    i keep forgetting to bring my Sea Choice wallet card with me to check on sustainable fishes when I shop. I must remember to do that!

                                    St. Lawrence Market
                                    92 Front St E, Toronto, ON M5E, CA

                                    17 Replies
                                    1. re: balthazar

                                      You'll be buying a lot less fish if you follow the sea choice cards, most ore the retailers here are selling unsustainable. The big sellers, atlantic salmon, black cod, halibut, tuna etc are all caught/farmed in very unsustainable manners.

                                      General rule of thumb, most smaller fishes are better than the biggies. Stick w/ sardines, anchovies, mackerel. They reach sexual maturity faster and stocks can be replenished quicker. Shellfish is a good bet too.

                                      1. re: aser

                                        I know, I know! Sad. This was my recollection from before, so I've mostly been sticking to wild salmon, rainbow trout, catfish and occasionally Artic char (my fave - must check the sustainability on that).

                                        Amazingly, it's hard to get fresh sardines... I haven't found them yet in supermarkets. Must check again at St. Lawrence or T&T... if anyone knows where to get good fresh sardines in downtown or mid-town TO, please post!

                                        1. re: balthazar

                                          Tobey Nemeth, ex Chef de Cuisine of Jamie Kennedy used to SWEAR by the frozen sardines...

                                          I tried them out... and she was right.

                                          Jamie Kennedy
                                          9 Church St, Toronto, ON M5E1M2, CA

                                          1. re: Non Doctor

                                            Interesting! Thanks for that tip! I will try them :)

                                            1. re: balthazar

                                              Mike's, in the St. Lawrence Market, has fresh sardines every now and then, though at a premium price - $10 a pound last time I bought there. But I've found precious little difference in taste between fresh and previously frozen sardines (which are about $7 a pound at the three SLM fishmongers, when they have them). I've also seen sardines - either fresh or previously frozen - at Diana's, though can't recall the price. But Diana's is invariably less expensive than the SLM.

                                          2. re: balthazar

                                            There's a guy who raises artic char in a stream near St Catherines (does that make them sustainable?) and sells them at the Brickworks Farmer's Markets on Saturdays (starts in late May again) and a few other farmer's markets around Toronto. I pan fry them 4 minutes a side in olive oil, some salt and pepper and nothing else and they just melt in your mouth! One of the best fish i have ever had.

                                            1. re: Flexitarian

                                              Oh, yum. Thanks! I will look for him this spring at Brickworks.

                                            2. re: balthazar

                                              Ever check out Newport Fish on Dupont for sardines?

                                            3. re: aser

                                              According to the City of Toronto's public health, shrimp and scallops are endangered ("eco unfriendly").

                                              1. re: Ediblethoughts

                                                By and large that's the case, although the BC trap-caught spot prawns and the Candian Atlantic coldwater shrimp and a few others are, according to seachoice.org, sustainable.


                                                Farmed scallops are also listed as sustainable.


                                                And the Argentinian wild scallop fishery is MSC certified as sustainable, although I understand some people have their differences with how the MSC certifies fisheries.


                                                1. re: tbonetak

                                                  Thanks for that info! It's unfortunately pretty much impossible to know where your scallops/shrimp come from in restaurants...

                                                  1. re: Ediblethoughts

                                                    Indeed. It's downright depressing having to avoid them completely when dining out.

                                                    But at least it's almost spot prawn season! Had them at the Black Hoof last year and they were exceptional.

                                                    The Black Hoof
                                                    928 Dundas St W, Toronto, ON M6J, CA

                                                    1. re: tbonetak

                                                      I thought of BH as being a meaty place---nice to know they have good seafood. Might consider trying them based on that...

                                                2. re: Ediblethoughts

                                                  Shrimp and scallops are also farmed, and sustainable, even wild. tbonetak has the references. Here is another http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr...
                                                  Without a link, I wouldn't give much credence to Toronto Public Health. Who knows what they have in mind.

                                              2. re: balthazar

                                                Mike's at the SLM seems pretty good, they at least give the impression of being very knowledgeable about what they sell. They also take something of a ethical stand on fish, with signs stating that they do not sell certain types. Their Tilapia is good, not at all muddy and they explained that they only sell Tilapia from the US/South America, not from China where it is often raised in polluted waters -- even though they told me that they often run out on Saturdays and could make more by swapping in Chinese Tilapia and most people would never know.

                                                Still, if you are concerned about serious fish sustainability (ie. Sea Choice wallet cards) you'll find many questionable fish still for sale there. Sadly, I'm not sure it would be possible to run a profitable fishmonger business selling only green-rated sustainable fish.

                                                1. re: Gary

                                                  I like Mike's for their quality, but I did see them selling Chilean sea bass which is a fish that is unsustainable and overfished (but oh so good to eat =9). I usually go to Diana's on Lawrence Ave. E., between Kennedy Rd. and Warden on the south side for my fish fix.

                                                2. re: balthazar

                                                  I found an earlier thread about the new fishmonger on Bayview Ave., De La Mer:


                                                  Still haven't been there myself.

                                                  1. Back to the original question I posted, which is how do you know the fish you are buying is really the fish, it seems like the only way to know is to see the fish before it is beheaded and have enough knowledge to be able to identify the species. But that still won't guarantee that the fish is wild instead of farmed. Also, purchasing the fish live vs dead fish doesn't seem to guarantee anything either (and from the posts on here and common sense, seems to introduce a host of other complications, like whether the fish is in worse shape having been transported live and having to be cared for than a fish that was filleted before being shipped, but then that's also debatable).

                                                    One thing is for sure: You know that they are lying when they try to sell a fish that does not exist, such as wild Atlantic salmon (there's only wild Pacific salmon now)

                                                    I, for one, will not purchase any fish from the large grocery chains after seeing that CBC Marketplace TV investigative report. Maybe I'd believe human error was the problem if once in a whlie it was the grocery chain selling a superior fish as an inferior fish, but in every single case it was only the other way around. Funny that.

                                                    The best we can do here in Canada and in Toronto with our lax seafood labelling requirements, lax inspeaction and skimpy regulations (supported by the flippant attitude of the government on that TV show to what CBC Marketplace discovered) is to carry our seachoice.org (or other) sustainable fish cards or iphone apps, try to educate ourselvees about fish species and attempt to buy from people who seem to know their fish (ie independent fishmongers) and to ask questions so vendors know we care.

                                                    I do appreciate everyone who has posted their thoughts and their favourite independent fishmongers and please continue to do so.

                                                    4 Replies
                                                    1. re: Flexitarian

                                                      There is no easy solution, if you care enough to do the research, then you're already halfway there. It does take time and effort.

                                                      You can't really blame the counter staff at chain grocery stores, they receive very little training. Most of them just open boxes and stock the display cases. The problem of mislabeling doesn't lie on the retail level, but with wholesalers.

                                                      Fish distro is the true last wild wild west of our world economy. If you're interested I would suggest you read two books, "The Sushi Economy" and "Bottomfeeders".

                                                      1. re: aser

                                                        I'd also recommend Theodore Bestor's "Tsukiji" for a look at the problem's "ground zero."
                                                        Change won't be easy so long as huge retailers like NG continue to support the status quo. Huge retailers more sensitive to customers like Costco might be the first to rethink their buying policies--maybe.

                                                      2. re: Flexitarian

                                                        As with the others' suggestions of doing the research beforehand, it may have been mentioned in other threads linked, but you can also do your part at restaurants by asking when placing your order where the fish is from and how it is caught. By asking the question, it brings awareness to servers who may not have really thought about it, and they can check with the chef. You can make a difference - if people aren't choosing that fish dish, creating no demand, the restaurant will hopefully stop serving it.

                                                        1. re: bluefirefly

                                                          I recall that in a recent thread about meat that is not mass produced (cannot remember whether it was about grass-fed or something else), somebody mentioned that choosing ethically-raised meat over going entirely vegetarian helps support the people involved in raising those animals. Going entirely vegetarian would not help in that sense.

                                                          In the same way, taking an extra step to show your support to order it whenever the sustainable fish is available would help even more than just skipping the questionable ones. And of course many reading this thread are already doing just that.

                                                      3. Tangential but a recent Toronto Star story poses the very real question of whether the sushi you eat is in fact the sushi you ordered.

                                                        The unsophisticated shopper/palate is always the huckster's paradise. Pay to be cool and eat like a fool.

                                                        1 Reply
                                                        1. re: mrbozo

                                                          By the way, here is a link to a Toronto Star Nov 11, 2009 article about all the mislabelling of fish here. Europe has much stricter requirements:


                                                        2. It almost seems a culinary tradition to do that. I seem to recall a section in Down and Out in Paris and London devoted to the art of passing cheap fish off as expensive fish. Very popular to cut cylinders out of skate wing and call them scallops back in the 40's.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: Snarf

                                                            I went to Diana's Seafood on Saturday. Now, that is one place where you know the fish you are buying is likely the fish they claim it is. It is a wholesale fish operation that supplies many of Toronto's restaurants and also has a retail store attached. Most of the fish on display was completely intact with heads on so you can identify the fish. Also, they have one of the broadest selections of fish I have seen in Toronto. The staff were very friendly and extremely knowledgeable. One other great thing is that the place was very busy, meaning hight turnover of fish, the majority of the fish was wild and there is also they will gut, scale and slice the fins and head off the fish if you wish. They also had a wide variety of other types of seafood.

                                                            I will definitely source a lot of my fish there from now on.

                                                            Diana's Seafood
                                                            2101 Lawrence Ave E, Toronto, ON M1R, CA