by Marion Nestle
Oct 31 2011

The latest fish story: this time it’s Boston-area restaurants

When I wrote What to Eat, a book devoted to discussion of food issues using supermarkets as an organizing device, I needed five chapters to discuss issues related to fish.  By the time I was through, I considered the fish sections of supermarkets to be the Wild West of the food industry: anything goes and the buyer had best be wary.

Fish regulation, I pointed out, is divided among at least four federal agencies: USDA for marketing, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for ocean fisheries, EPA for fish caught for sport and recreation, and FDA for fish safety.  This alone should tell you that this is a virtually unregulated industry.

Now the Boston Globe presents the latest evidence for this dismal view.  Investigative reporters examined fish served in Boston-area restaurants.  Oops.  They found widespread bait and switch.  In many restaurants—even good ones—the fish served are not what customers think they paid for.

On the menu, but not on your platefish at restaurants were mislabeled about half the time, sometimes deliberately.  The site takes some work to scroll through but is worth the effort.  Here is one example:

At East Bay Grille in Plymouth, what was advertised as native scrod or haddock was actually previously frozen Pacific cod. A general manager said the restaurant hadn’t yet updated the menu. The revised menu, however, still describes the fish as “fresh day boat scrod.”

From sea to sushi bar, a system open to abusefish is a largely unregulated industry and problems are pervasive.

Suppliers such as Goldwell use the names interchangeably, contributing to a little-known but pervasive problem in the international seafood industry: lower-quality and less expensive fish mislabeled as desirable species. Some distributors do this unknowingly, while others intend to deceive. Lax government oversight, industry indifference, and consumer ignorance allow mislabeling to flourish.

Fish misidentification is especially common at sushi restaurants, partly because they use various names for the same fish. The confusion can be compounded by packaging labels written in other languages that are incorrectly translated into English.

Bertucci’s tries to right a wrong: How hake ended up as cod on the menu at 94 Bertucci’s restaurants.

Scrutiny vowed on fish labeling: state officials vow to improve oversight of seafood sales.

Good luck to state officials.  They will have their hands full trying to get on top of this industry.  Here’s what I wrote in What to Eat:

Much of this industry acts like it is virtually unregulated and as if all it cares about is selling fish as quickly as possible at as high a price as the traffic will bear.  Out of ignorance or, sometimes, unscrupulousness, the more profit-minded segments of this industry bend the rules to their own advantage any time they can get away with it.  No wonder “fishy” translates as “suspicious.”  If you want to buy fish, you need to watch out for labels that are sometimes untruthful and often misleading” (p. 232).

Thanks to the Boston Globe for exposing this fish scandal. 

And thanks to Consumer Reports for doing a similar story in its December issue.  Its investigation found 20% of 190 samples to be mislabeled.  And the only fish consistently labeled correctly were Chilean sea bass, coho salmon, and bluefin and ahi tuna. 

Regulation anyone?

  • Anthro

    I always ask if the salmon is wild or farmed, but then I wonder if I should believe them. Now I’m really wondering! Even if the restaurant thinks it is telling the truth, the supplier might be lying to the restaurant. And what about the grocery stores?

    This situation is the basis for my argument for why we have regulation to begin with. It doesn’t come out of nowhere. Every regulation exists because of some prior abuse, not just some whim.

  • Interesting that the fish that are mistaken or purposely switched are all the white and lower priced fish.

  • John Goldman

    This fish debacle is an example of the foolish saving of dollars by the gov’t at the expense of safety and: education – hampered by unions -, small business expansion – unrealistic tax programs.
    After spending 40+ years in the food supply business, I firmly believe that too many are complicit: the restaurant, the wholesaler, sales people, or inspectors (they all can see the switches & willfully look the other way for improper/illegal profit opportunities). Chains are especially responsible for allowing this activity in, again, the search for increasing profits in this difficult time in the food service segment. Their excuses are weak at best.
    The penalties, when applied are so light, they offer no deterrent, i.e. when a trader is fined $75,000 for stealing (mislabeling) $2,000,000 plus (sound familiar to other fines levied in other scams).
    Our politicians continue to rape the public, padding the payrolls with paybacks, inflated salaries, double dipping, are the rule. The pols solutions is to take away entitlements earned by taxpaying citizens.
    Were is the needed action by our elected officials: Senators Kerry & Brown, not to speak of our congressmen, or state legislators. The only effective pols are the lobbies, buying their laws & rulings.

  • So what can I, as a consumer, do to help make strides toward a solution? Forgo buying fish? Are there known reputable brands/stores/restaurants? This sounds pretty dismal, and makes me worry a lot about welfare of the animals and aquatic employees as well as safety and quality of the product.

  • Hello there, thanks for this interesting article. I have to put my two cents in, because there are several issues that spark me here.

    I work as a deckhand on a small fishing operation on the south coast of Australia. We sell our catch at the Sunday markets. We don’t buy in fish, nor do we freeze anything. Anything left over (which is rare) gets sent to the Perth fish markets.

    I know from experience that anything sent to Perth is usually three days old by the time it gets there and that is before it is filletted/cleaned. Then it goes to market the next day, makes it to the supermarket the day after that … you get the picture. I don’t buy fish from the supermarket anymore because I know how old it is. Sometimes fishermen freeze fish without the Perth market knowing (it’s thawed out after several hundred miles on ice). So consumers will buy it not knowing it has been frozen and thawed, and then freeze it again.

    Our weekly seafood stall usually sells out within the hour. We rarely have anything left to send to Perth because the locals understand that even though our fish are real ones with bones and scales, they were still wriggling yesterday. They may have to work out what to do with the guts but fresh, fresh fish is worth getting up early for.

    The other issue that sparked me with your post is sustainable fishing. Small fish ( the bottom of the food chain) tend to be high in Omegas and low in heavy metals, due to their shorter life span. These are ‘run’ fish, in that they run the coast rather than stay sedentary. Sedentary fish are more likely to get fished out by those folk with gps or fishfinder technology. The big, white-fleshed fish are NOT run fish and are generally unsustainable. Sardines, herring, whitebait and some species of salmon are.

    So, to conclude, we should really avoid supermarkets and shop at our local farmer/fish markets for fresh fish, where you can look into the whites of the eyes of your fishmonger and ask when they were caught and where! And try to buy small ‘run’ fish. Their flesh is full of goodies and they will not become extinct anytime soon.


  • Dear Marion, I’m glad to see this article in the Globe on a much needed topic! I also wanted to say hello. I am a nutrition graduate student at Tufts, and I briefly introduced myself at the recent “Truck Farm” showing at the NYC Food Film Festival. I am the managing editor of our graduate student nutrition newspaper, and yesterday we published our November issue! Included is my film review, along with a host of other articles. Thanks always for your inspiration. Cheers, Rachel

  • I first heard about this a couple of years back on NPR. Just lovely to know it’s still going on… For the person who wondered if there are reputable places to buy fish, there definitely are, although I have no idea how to tell you to find them. I’m a vegetarian who enjoys an occasional piece of fish, but for the last few years, I only consume fish at two places: my husband’s restaurant and another local restaurant where we know the owner. My husband (and the other chef) buy all the fish directly from fishermen on the cape or Nantucket (where we are). It’s always fresh and it’s NEVER sold under a different name. There are restaurants that use honest practices, you just have to find them. I’d imagine that you’d have better luck by skipping a chain.

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  • Rachel Dowling

    Don’t listen to Amber Hinds. She has no idea what she’s talking about. Nantucket is revered around the world for our wonderful restaurants featuring fresh local fish. The restaurant where her husband works is just one of many, and by no means the best. Some people will take any opportunity to promote themselves while they throw their neighbors under the bus. The only reason why these are the only two restaurants where she eats in Nantucket have more to do with the discounts she gets there, and nothing to do with the superb quality of many, many of our local restaurants.

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