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How to Avoid Fake Fish in Boston [moved from Boston]

This morning's Boston Globe has a front-page headlining series of articles on the problem of mislabeled - - shell game, bait and switch [the punning possibilities are endless] - - fish on Boston restaurant menus and in stores.


I think that URL should get you past the pay per view barrier. Otherwise Google it.

Some time ago the NYTimes ran a similar expose of the practice in New York City.

Clearly the problem is endemic to the marketing of fish. So endemic in fact that the popular expressions for this kind of fraud are drawn from fishing, as demonstrated in the opening lines.

For many years I have followed a simple practice that reduces the risk. If more consumers demanded this method, not only would they less likely be defrauded, they would also get better tasting and cheaper fish.

The simple solution is to boycott filets. Only buy whole fish. If you want a filet, cut it yourself or have the waiter do it in front of you.

Once a fish is cut and sliced there is no simple way of knowing what you are getting. And the lower down the marketing chain of fish transmission the cutting occurs, the more likely that products will be switched. Obviously a lot of consumers get too squeamish too look a fish in the eyeball, or to see the entire carcass, bones and all, laid out on a plate, but that may be the only way to reduce the chances of getting ripped off, and possibly running a risk to your health as well as your wallet, e.g. escolar sold as white tuna.

Some imaginative restauranteurs could establish a niche market, if they specialized in whole grilled or roasted fish. And as for the fillets and steaks that necessarily have to be served because some varieties are simply too large for a single portion, dramatically cut the fillet from the whole fish in front of the diner as part of the restaurant experience.

Otherwise fillet customers are just like pigeons in a poker game.

Of all the major markets in the country Boston is one of the closest to regular supplies of fresh fish. The New England fishing industry has been hurt badly not only because of overfishing, but also because of fraudulent mislabelling that encourages cheap frozen imports. If local restauranteurs committed themselves to whole fish service, they would help reduce fraud and help an important New England industry.

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  1. Wow, very eye opening. The big one for me is that Ming Tsai is admitting that he's openly substituting one fish for another. If you're dropping $ 41 for a plate of premium fish, it should be the stated fish.

    I knew about the red snapper as it's the most substituted fish by far. It amazes me that restaurants do the switch as it would be an enormous liability. Being allergic to bottom-dwelling species (flounder, carp, etc.) is somewhat common and if you try to substitute red snapper for flounder, I see a decent lawsuit in the works.

    2 Replies
    1. re: atg106

      "alaskan butterfish", "sablefish", and "black cod" have long been market synonyms for the same fish - Tsai is not being disingenuous, it's just that market names aren't accurate - the other fish sometimes called butterfish bear no resemblance, and while I prefer "black cod", it isn't a cod. Pan-roasted Anoplopoma fimbria just doesn't sound as tasty I guess. Also, leading the story with the Tsai example, then burying his comments at the end seems a bit sensational.

      The article points out a range of problems, some rooted in the market naming, some in supply, some in indifference and miseducation, and some in outright deception - what it doesn't do is shed light on the problem in any meaningful way, as it seems no one decided to consult a biologist to check which case is which. It struck me as not dissimilar to the slow news weeks when the local crew pull out the "lets see how much bacteria is on your doorhandle" story...

      1. re: loper

        agree..I've always thought of Alaskan butterfish, Sable, and Black Cod as the same; not to be confused with Atlantic Cod..which is very similar to haddock...and probably why the scrod became a popular menu item..not specific. You don't "catch" a scrod.

        The fake grouper was a big issue in FL a few years ago.

    2. That's one (extreme) way to go about it. I also think that you can limit the problem on your own plate by limiting the types of species you order. Certain types of filets are easier to identify than others. As the article stated, for instance, mahi mahi and swordfish were correctly identified every time. Not much you could substitute for swordfish and fool anyone. Trout is another one that's easy (though many times that's available as a whole fish anyway). I never order sushi that claims "white tuna" because I learned long ago that it's code for escolar. Another huge one is "wild salmon" - many times it's totally obvious that it's farmed salmon but they serve it anyway (come on chef, they're different colors!).

      1. The problem is widespread in Florida and the Caribbean with warm water fish, too. 35% of grouper (mero in Mexico) sold in Florida and Yucatan restaurants, isn't grouper. Red snapper (huachinango in Mexico), which pairs with Veracruz sauce so nicely, often isn't. Hog fish is not a big seller in the states, but in Mexico it's boquinette, served whole and fried, hard to fake the 2 distinctive 2 front teeth. It's as tasty as pompano.

        The switcheroo game is played well by the restaurant owner, who plays dumb and claims to have been snookered by his supplier. Then the supplier says he was defrauded, too, it's an endless circle jerk.

        Beware battered fried fish filets, you have no way of knowing what's lurking beneath.

        1. if you shop at a reputable fish monger; there should be no such problem. I like courthouse and new deal.

          i read once that even Jovan Trboyevich had trouble with suppliers in Boston who tried to subsitute fish on him. He called them parvenus.

          2 Replies
          1. re: cambridgedoctpr

            Actually Courthouse and New Deal are my go-to fishmongers, with occasional visits to Whole Wallet when the others are not convenient.

            But to return to my solution boycott fillets eat only whole fish. The taste of a whole fish grilled on a real hardwood charcoal fire is one of the great gastronomic treats. It is a pity that more restaurants don't offer such fare.

            1. re: VivreManger

              Whole fish is terrific, without a doubt. But I think most people prefer filets, so I think that's what restaurants tend to offer. Diners might not want the reminder that their meal was once alive, or they don't want to deal with all the bones, or they think the skin is icky. And wheeling out a big tuna to carve out a chunk in front of the diners seems about as probable as wheeling out a beef carcass so you can see exactly what cut you are getting.

              On another note, if you check out the accompanying table of the Globe's findings, it is interesting that supermarkets did a pretty good job at label accuracy. Chain restaurants did pretty well, also.

          2. If it is hard to tell the difference in fillet form, why worry about it? Why are some fish considered to be 'premium' if it is so easy make substitutes?

            10 Replies
            1. re: paulj

              I have restarted the discussion of encouraging whole fish in Boston restaurants in the Boston Forum where it belongs.

              So you might want to look there:


              1. re: paulj

                So it's ok with you to mask a tilapia fillet with a lot of sauce and call it red snapper, or grouper, and charge accordingly? People who really know their fish will throw quite a hissy fit when they are defrauded, myself included. Educated consumers in large numbers are more able to be fish police than any incompetent government agency with budget cutbacks.

                1. re: Veggo

                  I'm not asking about any old substitution. I'm wondering about ones where a reasonably knowledgeable customer can't tell the difference. The Globe used DNA tests, not simple inspection.

                  I'm wondering whether, when people buy 'red snapper' (in store or restaurant), are they buying something that they can recognize, or are they buying a name? Could you distinguish between red snapper and some other snapper or rock fish?

                  Why should I care if my fish with a Cuban garlic seasoning is Pacific ocean perch as opposed to Atlantic red snapper?

                  The Globe article cites various reasons for being concerned about the substitutes, but admits at various points, that consumers and even experienced chefs often cannot tell the difference. I'm all for correct labeling, as long as the distinctions are meaningful (from the consumer's viewpoint).

                  1. re: paulj

                    The first time I entered La Calle Doce restaurant in Dallas, I had not even reached the hostess station and I said "they serve huachinango (red snapper) here."
                    Many wouldn't know or care, others do. To your question, your perch dish should cost about $4 less than a red snapper preparation.

                    1. re: Veggo

                      At a large Asian grocery (99Ranch) Canadian ocean perch was one of the cheaper fish, $3/lb whole clean w/o head.

                    2. re: paulj

                      I think one reason would be cost. If I was paying for a far more expensive type of fish and getting, say, tilapia, I'd be getting cheated, pure and simple. I didn't see any examples in the article of a MORE pricey substitute.

                      Or if you were trying to be ecologically responsible and ordered something on the Monterey Bay safe list and got something that was actually nearing the brink of extinction, that would be unconscionable on the part of the restaurant/wholesaler. You might not especially care, but it doesn't make it right.

                      1. re: paulj

                        It doesn't matter whether the consumers can tell the difference. No one should pay for something they're not getting.

                        1. re: Isolda

                          What do I get when I buy real red snapper? A difference that I can taste, or just bragging rights?

                            1. re: paulj

                              Ask Douglas Brackman what happens when you order Red Snapper and hand rolls.

                    3. I've long understood this to be true. You can taste the difference if you are really familiar with the fish in question. Depends on the prep, deep fried, in a heavy sauce, much harder to tell.

                      Anyone who can't tell hake or haddock from Cod... well that's just silly. The texture is totally different.

                      With Red Snapper in particular the price for the real stuff has been high for so long as it to be nearly impossible to serve it at the price point on most menus.

                      13 Replies
                      1. re: StriperGuy

                        Yes - seafood lovers should make an effort to become familiar with the sight & taste of their favorites. While it's not always easy to tell the difference, frequently it is. For instance, one of our supermarkets here (Martins) have frozen flounder "loins" in their frozen fish case. These are 1"+ thick pieces of white fish that are definitely NOT flounder in any way, shape, or form. I haven't looked at their origin since I'd never buy them, but automatically know that 1) flounders don't have "loins", & 2) even the largest flounders don't have filets that thick.

                        1. re: Breezychow

                          'Becoming familiar with the sight and taste of your favorites' makes sense - almost to the point of being a tautology. After all, why would it be a favorite if I didn't have enough to be familiar with it? But how attached should I become to those favorites? Who's to say I wouldn't like a less expensive substitute just as well, may be even better?

                          Without trying them, how do you know that fake flounder 'loins' aren't as good as the real stuff?

                          1. re: paulj

                            I'm all for trying something new, but call it what it is, and charge what it is worth. Try buying your wife cubic zirconium "diamond earrings" and see what reception you get after she has been to the appraiser.

                            1. re: Veggo

                              Yep, that's my take as well. Label honestly. It doesn't matter whether the diner is educated enough to appreciate the difference between two similar fish.

                              1. re: Isolda

                                I agree. Moreover, how is the diner ever going to learn the difference if she/he can never be sure of what is being served to them?

                              2. re: Veggo

                                and I'll say there is a bigger difference between red snapper and tilapia than the zirconium and real diamond. I can't tell the difference between a really good fake diamond without the appraisal but can easily tell the texture of tilapia and it ain't red snapper unless it's not been stored well.

                                1. re: scubadoo97

                                  It's actually pretty easy to tell Zircon from diamond too.

                              3. re: paulj

                                Gee, I didn't know that flounder has "loins" - ever SEEN a whole flounder? there's nothing on there that I could possibly describe as a loin. I imagine that "loin" as used for fish can only be a round-bodied fish like tuna. Thus, no halibut loins, no sole loins etc etc.

                                Furthermore, if a restaurant is substituting a less expensive fish for a more expensive one and charging the price of the more expensive one, that's fraud. NOT, I hasten to point out, what Blue Ginger does with the butterfish.

                                1. re: lifeasbinge

                                  How do I determine whether I'm being charged the price of the more expensive fish or the price of a less expensive one? Is there some app that tells that tells me that Huachinango a la Veracruzana should sell for $xxx if made with red snapper, and $yyy if made with Pacific ocean perch?

                                  1. re: paulj

                                    For your example, I said above, 4 bucks apart. But rarely will you find both in the same place for a comparison.

                                    If you know the subject, you have a feel for reasonable pricing. Similar to wine. If you see Far Niente for $5.50 a glass at happy hour somewhere, it's not Far Niente. On a current Florida thread, I checked a menu of a resto on a barrier island off Tampa, and saw grouper for $10. I guarantee it's not grouper.
                                    The upsell of inferior items at a premium price and label is much more pernicious and more difficult to detect. But those who can, should. And make quite a scene about it. JMO.

                              4. re: Breezychow

                                Flounder loins, ha, ha, ha, ha.

                                Nuf said.

                                  1. re: ipsedixit

                                    Or the flounder chateaubriand, for two.

                            2. Several years ago a Twin Cities TV station did an exposé on restaurants seriving zander but the nenues called it walleye. All of the substitutions were to save money. Walleye and zander (a European fish) are freshwater fish but walleye is the state fish of Minnesota and many Minnesotans get real upset if you mess with their walleye. (Even though all walleye served in restaurants in Minnesota is actually Canadian walleye).

                              1. As I began reading this and the companion thread, the same questions that Paulj has been asking were running through my mind: If diners can't tell the difference -- in other words, if the real fish and the imitation fish look and taste the same -- what difference does it make? (Setting aside, for the sake of discussion, consideration of any allergies or other health issues.)

                                Well, yes, there is that very basic issue of being defrauded. The sense of an assault on both your wallet and your sense of goodwill toward the patrons.

                                So maybe the question should be reframed: Is the higher price that is demanded for the more expensive fish justified?

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: racer x

                                  Paulj said, "I'm wondering whether, when people buy 'red snapper' (in store or restaurant), are they buying something that they can recognize, or are they buying a name? Could you distinguish between red snapper and some other snapper or rock fish?...
                                  What do I get when I buy real red snapper? A difference that I can taste, or just bragging rights?"

                                  It would be a huge mistake to underestimate the contribution of the label to the experience of taste. How something is presented has a profound impact on how it tastes.

                                  1. re: racer x

                                    VERY good point about the impact of the label on human perception...

                                  2. re: racer x

                                    You can actually taste the difference pretty easily in most cases. Though snapper is honestly pretty boring regardless. I've eaten them spear-fished right out of the Caribbean. Just not that interesting, though they have gotten rather pricey.

                                  3. Fake fish? What is it then, tofu?