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From sea to sushi bar, a system open to abuse

The rampant mislabeling of fish that consumers buy can be largely traced to this: the lack of anything like the regulations imposed on meat suppliers

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By Beth Daley and Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / October 24, 2011

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Second of two parts.

In the early-morning hours, workers at a Goldwell Trading Corp. warehouse in Boston load boxes of frozen escolar into vans for delivery to area sushi restaurants.

By the time the fish appears on diners’ plates, it has undergone a Cinderella-like transformation: the escolar, which can cause digestion problems, is presented as white tuna or albacore - more palatable and pricier fish.

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.

A Globe investigation detailed yesterday found that mislabeling of certain fish is endemic in the Boston area. DNA testing showed that 32 area restaurants that serve sushi - including Takara Sushi in Newton, Basho Japanese Brasserie in Boston, and Kowloon in Saugus - sold misnamed fish. For instance, tilapia stood in for red snapper, and farmed hybrid bass was identified as wild striped bass.

Overall, the testing revealed that nearly half of 183 fish samples collected at restaurants and supermarkets were not the species ordered.

Massachusetts has long played a major role in the nation’s seafood industry, with both fresh catches and frozen fish being sent here to get processed. Last year, about $673 million worth of seafood was processed in Massachusetts, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service, enough to rank the state fourth in the nation. (Alaska tops the list.)

The Globe investigation found that the majority of the restaurants selling mislabeled fish get their products from a handful of distributors, including True World Foods and Goldwell Trading, which operate Boston warehouses. Some suppliers implicitly or overtly encourage seafood misrepresentation, according to restaurateurs and their employees.

Restaurant invoices and product catalogs that were provided to the Globe show that suppliers often use two names for one species of fish. For example, Goldwell Trading, which delivers sushi to about 150 restaurants in Massachusetts, describes the same fish as white tuna and escolar on its invoices. The catalog of True World, a large supplier that says it delivers to high-profile clients such as the Red Sox clubhouse at Fenway Park, lists it the same way.

But the two species are not even close. Albacore, a white tuna, is desired for its mild taste. Escolar, also known by the less-inviting name of snake mackerel, is not in the tuna family and sells for about 20 percent less than albacore. In fact, the US Food and Drug Administration advises against the sale of escolar because the fish contains an oil that can cause severe gastrointestinal problems.

“We call escolar super-white tuna,’’ said Ting San, chef and owner at the Oishii Sushi Bar in Chestnut Hill. He buys it from several suppliers, including True World. “What I know from the sushi businesses is that’s what we call it. The suppliers are making the same mistakes, too.’’

Kenny Zheng of Goldwell Trading said there is no difference between the fish. “White tuna and escolar are the same species,’’ he said. “We use both names.’’

True World Foods, which did not return repeated messages seeking comment, supplies fish to about 8,000 restaurants, hotels, country clubs, cruise ships, and specialty retail stores across the United States, according to the company’s website.

A vast network to cover

Identifying fish consumed in New England used to be easy because it usually didn’t travel far - local fishermen sold their catches to local stores and restaurants. But advances in fish-freezing technology and transportation allow grocers and chefs to sell seafood from all over the world.

Hundreds of species caught at sea or raised on farms are shipped to distant locations, especially in Asia. There, they are packed whole or cut into fillets, packaged, and sent out again. Processors and distributors in the United States fillet whole fish or break down boxes into smaller packages to distribute throughout the country.

The long supply chain increases the opportunities for mislabeling between the catch and dinner plate. Consumers’ eyesight and taste don’t always provide much back-up, either. Different types of filleted white fish often resemble one another, and their subtle differences in taste can be overwhelmed by herbs, sauces, and spices used in prepared dishes.

The FDA has primary responsibility for ensuring that fish is safe, sanitary, and properly labeled, but the agency has not made seafood labeling a priority, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report. Imported seafood accounts for 86 percent of the fish consumed by Americans, but the FDA examines only about 2 percent of imported seafood annually, and its main inspection program focuses on food safety, not potential economic fraud.

Growing concern over seafood substitution, however, has prompted FDA officials to develop a pilot program that will use new DNA technology to identify mislabeled fish.

Two other agencies share responsibility for detecting and preventing seafood fraud - US Customs and Border Protection and the NOAA Fisheries Service - but there is little collaboration between them and the FDA, the GAO noted.

This spotty oversight contrasts sharply with monitoring of the meat and poultry industries, which is solely the responsibility of the US Department of Agriculture. The USDA has 8,000 inspectors at 6,200 US processing plants. The agency allows only about 30 other countries to export certain meat and poultry products here - and all must have a federal regulatory system for meat safety that is equivalent to that of the United States.

There are no such restrictions on seafood imports, and the FDA has only about 1,100 inspectors for 167,000 US food plants. Last year, the agency and states it contracts with inspected about 15 percent of the domestic facilities.

Most US beef producers also take part in a voluntary grading system that stamps meat with a USDA quality seal - some 97 percent of steaks and roasts US residents consume are graded.

It’s not a perfect system. But the smaller number of producers, processors, and animal species makes meat far less vulnerable to mislabeling than seafood.

Several states have taken matters into their own hands. Florida officials regularly inspect menus and compare them with invoices and boxes of fish in the restaurants. Proprietors found with misrepresented fish face fines of up to $800 and can have their restaurant license suspended or revoked.

Massachusetts has no such organized effort. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health runs a Food Protection Program, but seafood inspections at processors and wholesalers focus on safety and sanitation issues.

Deceptive practices

Most of the 24 restaurants that the Globe found to have mislabeled red snapper pointed to their suppliers, who play an important role for buyers. These suppliers suggest popular fish, alternatives for more expensive seafood, and note how other restaurants refer to these species on menus.

Many sushi restaurants use the word “tai’’ or “dai’’ to refer to red snapper. Employees from at least six restaurants said they were told by suppliers, including True World and Nishimoto, a California distributor, that red snapper translates in Japanese to “izumidai’’ or “izumi tai’’.

But Japanese language specialists told the Globe that “tai’’ refers to a different species, called sea bream, and “izumidai’’ means tilapia. Adding to the confusion, True World, in its Boston catalog, uses a combination of these phrases by referring to tilapia as “izumi tai.’’

Norio Yamamoto, of Nishimoto’s administration department, declined to comment.

Other restaurants said they call in orders for red snapper and don’t closely examine the fish.

“I order izumi tai - red snapper,’’ said Freddy, an employee at South Boston’s Teriyaki House who declined to give his last name when the Globe contacted the restaurant about DNA tests that showed it sold tilapia as red snapper. After calling True World, Freddy told a reporter, “I used to think it was red snapper, but I just learned it is very similar but not the same thing.’’

Actually, the species are not remotely similar. And there is a significant price difference. Whole red snapper wholesaled on average for $5.21 a pound over the last year, more than double the price of tilapia fillets from Asia, which cost on average $2.30 a pound, according to Urner Barry Publications, a firm that reports prices for fish, poultry, and other commodities.

Swapping tilapia for red snapper is not simply a matter of economics. Diners are also losing out on the flavor. Trevor Corson, author of the book, “The Story of Sushi,’’ said snapper and tilapia are hardly interchangeable.

“Bream and snapper are particularly rich in a sweet-tasting amino acid called glycine. By contrast, tilapia are inherently almost tasteless if they are farmed in a clean environment,’’ Corson said. “If not, they can taste muddy or worse.’’

Naming conventions vary

Mislabeling is particularly vexing for consumers who want to buy locally caught fish.

The Globe found repeated instances of restaurants using frozen Pacific cod instead of local haddock and cod, which costs about twice as much.

At Ken’s Steak House in Framingham, the 60-year-old restaurant known for originating Ken’s salad dressings, haddock has been featured in its fresh scrod dishes for decades But the Globe’s sample of the “Scrod New England’’ dish - an herb-crusted fresh fillet with lobster cream sauce - was a less expensive, previously frozen Pacific cod.

Ken’s chef Gary Clark blamed the restaurant’s supplier for the mislabeling, but declined to identify the company.

“Some people want to lie to the public and call it fresh, and for some people it’s just an oversight,’’ said Mike Barry, who runs Pier Fish, a Boston supplier (though not to Ken’s Steak House), who puts a “PF’’ on his Pacific cod invoices to indicate previously frozen.

The FDA maintains a list of acceptable market names for fish species, but it allows the use of other names for the same fish in certain geographical regions to respect local traditional names.

For instance, sablefish, found in the North Pacific, is known as black cod in that region. But it’s not even a distant cousin of the cod family.

In Boston it can be marketed only as sablefish, according to the FDA. Regardless, many area suppliers and restaurants - including the high-end Boston Japanese restaurant O Ya - call it black cod because they say more consumers know it by that name.

The ease with which suppliers and restaurants can mislabel fish underscores the urgent need for a better enforcement system that will assure people they are getting the fish they ordered, according to environmentalists and some seafood industry insiders.

The National Fisheries Institute, a trade group, created the Better Seafood Board in 2007 to investigate allegations of fraud. Members also pledge not to engage in mislabeling and other deceptive tactics.

But even some suppliers admit that having the industry police itself is not going to solve the entire problem.

“It’s enforcement - and it’s the local agencies that need to do this,’’ said Morty Nussbaum, chief executive of International Marketing Specialists, a Newton seafood importer. “This is real fraud.’’

Beth Daley can be reached at Jenn Abelson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.