Last week, a nationwide study was released that drew attention to the amount of seafood being labeled, sold and served as a species it is not.
Out of the 1,215 samples tested by ocean conservation group Oceana, 401 were determined to be mislabeled.
Amid the seafood sleuthing, Wayne Samiere says consumer knowledge is power. Samiere is the founder and CEO of Honolulu Fish Company and a trained marine biologist; he has also worked for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.
"Information about various types of seafood is not as familiar to consumers as the basic facts about beef, chicken and pork," Samiere said. "Reputable seafood vendors make an effort to educate their customers about products they are selling. However, there are vendors who want to label their seafood products with a name that consumers know and find appealing."
With a few easy tricks, Samiere says you can feel empowered to avoid the old "bait and switch" problem next time you visit your local seafood counter or restaurant.
1. Warning signs
A consumer should enjoy seafood in restaurants that have a reputation for serving quality food. There are some warning signs that may indicate a "bait and switch" establishment. These include: When the price of a dish is just too good to be true; when the server seems quite unknowledgeable about the fish; and when the restaurant doesn't seem at all excited about the fish they're offering. When any of these happen, consider ordering something (or going somewhere) else.
Another simple question you can ask waitstaff or a seafood retailer is: "Would you eat the fish raw as sashimi or sushi?" Sashimi requires the highest standard seafood products. A good vendor selling a respectable fish product won't hesitate to say yes. If they have any doubts about the freshness or wholesomeness of their fish, you will usually be able to detect it in their response.
2. Educate yourself
The best way to better protect yourself against mislabeling is to simply learn more about fish. You can use the Internet to study up on raw and prepared fish pictures, and to learn about the specific characteristics found in each species.
For example, sea bass and red snapper are two popular fish that are available at restaurants around the globe. Unfortunately, they often can be the victim of the old bait-and-switch. To prevent this from happening, learn what characteristics each species offers and then research their substitutes. Any flaky, white meat fish can be substituted for sea bass or snapper including pollock, flatfishes, tilapia or catfish.
3. Avoid pre-frozen and pre-treated tuna
Before purchasing fresh tuna from a local retailer, ask the salesperson if the tuna has been previously frozen and if carbon monoxide or tasteless smoke has been used to process the tuna. When tuna is exposed to carbon monoxide or tasteless smoke, the fish meat turns red and will stay red even when it is frozen or decomposing. As a result, any visual clues about the freshness of the fish will be masked, making it nearly impossible for a consumer to know the quality level of the tuna.
4. U.S. vs. foreign fish
When dining at a restaurant, ask the waitstaff or chef if the fish was caught in the U.S. or in a foreign country. U.S.-caught fish are handled and processed by closely monitored U.S. factories. U.S. fish processing factories must abide by strict health and sanitation regulations. Unfortunately, a lot of foreign-caught fish come from overseas facilities that are not regulated and are often far below U.S. standards. Consumers want to avoid purchasing fish that has been inside an unregulated facility.
5. Use your nose!
The best tool a consumer has to determine the safety of their seafood is their nose. Raw, uncooked seafood of any kind should not smell offensive in any way. If you don't like the smell of something, you won't like the taste. We all have natural sensors for detecting bad, offensive odors that could be caused by decomposition. Good fish products will not smell unpleasant, no matter how strong their natural smell may be.