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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.

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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.

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    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.