It has come to this: you'll probably have to run a genetic test on the seafood special to make sure the fish you ordered is the fish you got.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
They sure look like red snapper.
They sure look like red snapper. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Restaurants all over the country are substituting cheaper fish, like catfish, for more expensive species like grouper and red snapper. But the sneaky chefs are no match for Mahmood Shivji, a conservation biologist at the Guy Harvey Research Institute in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
He's used DNA tests to identify the fish in 150 samples from across the country and discovered bait-and-switch menus are common. Only one of 15 samples of fish billed as red snapper at Kansas City restaurants was legit, he tells NPR's Robert Siegel on Friday's All Things Considered.
Shivji's real interest is marine conservation. Before getting drafted as a consumer watchdog he applied DNA testing to batches of shark fins as a means to uncover illegal trade in parts from protected species, such as the basking shark.
But Shivji sees a danger to wildlife lurking in the menu switches, too. The rampant mislabeling leads consumers to believe wrongly that "grouper and red snapper are abundant in the ocean when the reality is that these species are severely overfished and in serious need of better management and conservation efforts," he tells NPR.
Shivji's fish tale reminded us of the precocious New York high school students who brought the same sorts of genetic testing to bear on the Big Apple's sushi and fish markets last year and found toro wasn't always what it was cracked up to be. A quarter of the samples they subjected to DNA testing were mislabeled.
If you want help figuring out which fish are OK to eat from a conservation standpoint, check out the handy charts put out by the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California.