'Boston Globe' Finds Mislabeled Fish In Restaurants

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A five-month investigation by the Boston Globe shows that restaurants in Massachusetts are routinely mislabeling fish, often substituting cheaper, lower-quality fish for what's promised on the menu. Melissa Block speaks to Boston Globe reporter Jenn Abelson about the story.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, a fish tale. A case of mistaken identity - many cases, in fact. A five-month investigation by the Boston Globe shows that restaurants in Massachusetts are routinely mislabeling fish, often substituting cheaper, lower-quality fish for what's promised on the menu. And many consumers are being told fish is local and fresh when it's actually been frozen and shipped across the country. Boston Globe reporter Jenn Abelson co-wrote the story. Jenn, welcome to the program.

JENN ABELSON: Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: And you ended up having DNA barcode testing done on these fish samples you gathered at restaurants all across Massachusetts. Tell us how this worked.

ABELSON: Another reporter and I, Beth Daley, went about collecting fish from across the state. We mostly focused on species of fish that had been identified by regulators as having been more likely to be substituted than others. These included red snapper, white tuna, local cod and haddock. And we went to 134 restaurants, supermarkets and fish markets all across the state and got samples.

BLOCK: And the DNA testing that you had done, up in a lab, showed what percentage of fish that actually was other than what it was advertised as?

ABELSON: Forty-eight percent came out to be mislabeled.

BLOCK: Forty-eight percent?

ABELSON: Forty-eight percent. Yes.

BLOCK: And the numbers were way higher for red snapper. You mentioned that that was a problem fish, and it turned out it was a big problem. Hardly any red snapper was actually red snapper.

ABELSON: Yeah. We tested 26 samples of red snapper and 24 times, we got served something else. We were served ocean perch, crimson snapper, Colorado snapper and tilapia.

BLOCK: What would the price differential be between the fish that's actually served and what was being promised, the red snapper?

ABELSON: So at sushi restaurants, which routinely substituted tilapia, that costs about $2.30 a pound, whereas red snapper could cost about $5.20 a pound.

BLOCK: It's interesting because you point out that what's going on isn't just deceptive, but there can be real health implications, too, with some of the fish that's being substituted.

ABELSON: Definitely. We found escolar, which is nicknamed in the industry the ex-lax fish. It was masquerading as white tuna, which many people would assume would be albacore. And the ex-lax fish has an oily content that can cause some severe gastrointestinal issues.

BLOCK: Well, what did restaurant owners say when you told them about what you'd found?

ABELSON: We got a mix of responses. There were some that were genuinely surprised, and blamed the mislabeling on suppliers who had duped them. Others found that it wasn't a big deal, that everyone in the industry does this. And so the FDA is trying to do more. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office issued a report that said that they were not doing enough to combat seafood fraud - and mislabeling, in particular.

So much of the seafood these days is imported. Eighty-six percent of all the seafood that Americans consume is imported, and the FDA inspects less than about 2 percent of it. And so they're starting to try to pilot some DNA testing, but it's still in the early stages.

BLOCK: Well, Jenn, what do you think the lesson is for consumers? If you want to have some clarity that what you think you're eating is actually the fish that you think it is, what do you do?

ABELSON: I think consumers have to ask a lot of questions, the way we asked a lot of questions of the chefs, of the restaurant owners, about where they're getting their fish. You know, the takeaway is that if you're at a sushi restaurant and they're serving red snapper, it's almost definitely not red snapper. It's probably tilapia. And if you're ordering white tuna, it's also probably not white tuna. You're probably going to get escolar.

BLOCK: It is pretty striking, when you think about it, that you're talking about restaurants in Massachusetts, which has such a longstanding and, at least at one point, thriving fishing industry.

ABELSON: We were fairly surprised at how widespread this was, given that Boston is such a seafood-savvy town. And it came to us as a bit of a surprise at the scope it hit restaurants. Low-end, high-end, chain, mom-and-pops, and no one seemed to be immune.

BLOCK: I've been talking with Jenn Abelson of the Boston Globe. Their series is called "Fishy Business." Jenn, thanks very much.

ABELSON: Thanks for having me.

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