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Almost Half of the Sushi in LA May Be Mislabeled

A study found that red snapper you ordered is almost certainly something else

A piece of nigiri being held by chopsticks. Photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Seafood fraud is rampant around the world, and that’s translating to a great deal of false advertising at sushi restaurants in Los Angeles. A new study from UCLA and Loyola Marymount University finds that 47 percent of LA sushi is mislabeled.

Researchers studied sushi menus and conducted DNA tests on fish at 26 restaurants from 2012 through 2015. The most reliable order was tuna, with just one out of 48 samples being different kind of fish (although, the type of tuna being mislabeled was more common). Salmon was also a safe bet: six out of 47 orders were mislabeled. Beyond these fish, things were a little more dicey.

Diners looking for halibut or red snapper at an LA sushi house are almost assuredly being deceived. In all instances, researchers found they were served imposters when ordering these fish. Larry Olmsted, author of the book Real Food/Fake Food has pointed to a national study from 2013 that determined 38 percent of all restaurants, and 74 percent of sushi restaurants, fake their red snapper. Olmsted says halibut is commonly faked throughout the industry too.

“Half of what we’re buying isn’t what we think it is,” Paul Barber, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior author of the study, said of the findings. “Fish fraud could be accidental, but I suspect that in some cases the mislabeling is very much intentional, though it’s hard to know where in the supply chain it begins. I suspected we would find some mislabeling, but I didn’t think it would be as high as we found in some species.”

In December, the Obama administration launched a program intended to halt illegal fishing and seafood fraud in the United States. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is charged with tracking roughly 25 percent of imported seafood, from the fishing boat where the originates until it reaches U.S. borders. The program focuses on varieties of seafood that are commonly mislabeled or overfished. Enforcement began January 1, and fraudsters face having their products seized or other legal actions.

“If we don’t have accurate information on what we’re buying, we can’t make informed choices,” Barber said. “The amount of mislabeling is so high and consistent, one has to think that even the restaurants are being duped.”

Laws meant to curb menu fraud have been around in cities and states across the country for nearly a century, but they aren’t always effective. In Los Angeles, the department of health is responsible for enforcement, but investigators are more interested in sanitation than fraud. Food-borne illnesses are a bigger concern than diners eating fraudulent fish and being none the wiser. If government investigators are going to overlook seafood fraud, Demian Willette, UCLA assistant research scientist and Loyola Marymount University biology instructor, says consumers may need to take matters into their own hands.

“DNA barcoding is becoming an increasingly popular tool to identify mislabeled products,” Willette said. “Our finding of a persistently high rate of seafood mislabeling should encourage consumers to demand strong truth-in-menu laws from local public health agencies. Citizen-science and crowd-sourced data also have real potential to keep the consumer informed.”

Bait and Switch: UCLA Study Finds Fish Fraud Runs Rampant [Study]
Seafood Fraud Is Literally Everywhere [E]
The White House Is Cracking Down on Seafood Fraud [E]
How to Avoid the Most Common Fake Foods on Restaurant Menus [E]
Why the Laws Policing Menu Fraud Don’t Really Work [E]

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