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Scrutiny vowed on fish labeling

State lawmakers, AG consider action Brown, Kerry talk with US regulators

By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / October 27, 2011

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State officials say they will improve oversight of seafood sales in Massachusetts after the results of a Globe investigation published this week revealed widespread mislabeling at area restaurants, and few controls to protect diners from potential health risks and overpaying for fish.

The Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure is expected to schedule an oversight hearing on seafood substitution in the coming weeks. The Patrick administration and members of the state’s congressional delegation - including both senators - also are reviewing the matter. And a prominent local restaurateur said he will change his menu in response to the Globe’s findings.

“Fish mislabeling has become an accepted practice,’’ said state Representative Ted Speliotis, the Danvers Democrat and cochairman of the joint committee. “There appears to be overlapping responsibility but no one is taking action. This needs to change.’’

The five-month investigation showed that consumers routinely and unknowingly pay too much for less prized fish or buy seafood that is something other than what is advertised on menus. Nearly half the 183 fish samples reporters purchased at restaurants, grocery stores, and seafood markets were sold with the wrong species name.

Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office said yesterday that it wants to determine what role the state can play in combating the misnaming of seafood, and Barbara Anthony, undersecretary of the Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, said her agency also will get involved in the issue.

“When consumers purchase a specific type of fish, they expect to be getting what they paid for,’’ Anthony said. She said her office will work with state and law enforcement officials, and with restaurants and fish wholesalers, “to identify ways to help restore public confidence.’’

To measure the extent of seafood mislabeling, the Globe hired a lab in Canada to conduct DNA testing on fish samples collected by reporters. Among the findings, 24 of 26 red snapper samples were actually less desirable fish, including those collected at Minado restaurant in Natick, H Mart in Burlington, and Takara Sushi in Newton. All 23 white tuna samples turned out to be escolar, a cheaper fish that can cause severe gastrointestinal distress. And previously frozen Pacific cod stood in for pricier fresh New England cod or haddock at Hearth ‘n Kettle in Attelboro, Ken’s Steak House in Framingham, and the Courtyard Restaurant & Pub in Cataumet.

The Globe chose to focus its testing on certain species, such as red snapper and tuna, because they have been identified by regulators as more likely to be mislabeled, so the findings do not represent all types of fish sold.

Seafood substitution happens for a variety of reasons, from deliberate fraud to a chef’s ignorance. But in many cases, the motivation is increased profits, the Globe found. The result is that consumers regularly overpay for misrepresented fish that can violate dietary restrictions or make them sick.

Nationally, mislabeled seafood - which includes substituted species and fish with the wrong weight - is estimated to cost diners and the industry up to hundreds of millions of dollars annually, according to the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group. Massachusetts already has some laws against the sale of misleading seafood that carry potential fines of $500, but state lawmakers said there is apparently no agency charged with enforcing the rules.

The Food and Drug Administration has the main responsibility for ensuring that fish is safe, sanitary, and properly labeled. But the agency has failed to make seafood labeling a priority, and it inspects less than 2 percent of imported fish annually, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report.

“Clearly the FDA ought to be better funded for a number of reasons, including [mislabeling],’’ said US Representative Barney Frank. “I’ve been in touch with the people who catch fish in the area and they are clearly troubled by it and want it to be cracked down on.’’

US Senator Scott Brown is reaching out to federal agencies to discuss the “breakdown in enforcement’’ that led to the Globe’s findings of routine seafood substitution, according to a spokesman. Senator John Kerry’s office said he is also in discussions with federal regulators about the issue.

Robert B. Vanasse, executive director of Saving Seafood, a nonprofit group funded by the fishing industry, said it wants to bring together lawmakers, industry leaders, and nonprofits to make preventing seafood misrepresentation a priority.

“Mislabeling is a travesty that’s bad for consumers and bad for the domestic industry,’’ Vanasse said. “It breaks the bond of trust when you go into a restaurant and order food. You’re supposed to get what you order.’’

In recent years, the FDA has published a list of acceptable market names for different fish species as a way to help reduce seafood misnaming. But some fish sellers and industry observers claim the list is confusing and enforcement lackluster. In addition, they say, the long supply chain fish travel from the sea to consumers makes the system susceptible to abuse.

After the Globe’s report this week, the Massachusetts Restaurant Association asked the FDA for information on market names, according to the association’s chief executive Peter G. Christie.

“It really is very confusing,’’ Christie said. “Frankly, this is the first time in my career that I have been aware of this problem with seafood. However, it does not change the fact that some operators were knowingly, for whatever reason, substituting one species with another. This is unacceptable.’’

Celebrity chef Ming Tsai, who owns the Blue Ginger restaurant in Wellesley, said he believed Alaskan butterfish, his signature dish, was a suitable label for the sablefish he was serving. Tsai said that when he put it on the menu more than a decade ago, he consulted his supplier and other chefs to find a better-sounding name for sablefish.

According to the FDA, eight species can be called butterfish, but sablefish is not on the list of acceptable market names. Tsai said he was not trying to pass off an inexpensive fish as pricey, noting that he pays $20 a pound for sablefish, which is sustainable and line-caught.

“I did not ever intentionally deceive customers,’’ he said. “I did make a technical mistake and now that I know, I’ll change the name.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson. Beth Daley of the Globe staff contributed to this report.