Mislabeled Foods Finding Their Way Onto Consumer’s Plates
Oceana, an international organization dedicated to ocean conservation, released a report with the headline “Widespread Seafood Fraud Found in New York City,” reigniting the debate about deceptive restaurant menus. Using genetic testing, the group found every one of 16 sushi bars investigated sold the researchers mislabeled fish and 39% of the seafood from 81 grocery stores and restaurants was not what it claimed it was.
Consumers are frequently misled when they buy fish because of the thousands of species of fish in the sea and limited knowledge about those species among diners. According to Morgan Liscinsky, a spokesman with the Food and Drug Administration, there are 519 acceptable market names listed for fish, but more than 1,700 species are currently sold. Anne Quatrano, an Atlanta chef who opened Bacchanalia 20 years ago, said, “This thing with fish is age old, it’s been going on forever. Unless you buy whole fish, you can’t always know what you’re getting from a supplier.”
Many consumers have been subjected to the culinary bait and switch. A supplier or chef often takes the bet that the local or federal agency responsible for stopping deceptive practices is not likely to walk through the door. In many cases, those who complain to the manager leave the restaurant with a free dinner, an apology, and a couple of gift certificates. Freddie Washington, a pastor in Tuscaloosa, Alabama who sometimes eats out five nights a week, said, “If I’m paying for a menu item, I’m expecting that menu item to be placed before me.”
Swapping one ingredient for a less expensive one is not always the fault of the person who sells food to the restaurant. Many identifying words on a menu are essentially marketing terms. The line between serving langostino and calling it lobster or marketing something like Patagonian toothfish as Chilean sea bass is a fine one. Any chef can claim that a steak is Kobe beef or say a chicken was humanely treated without any penalty if the claim is found to be inaccurate.
New York chef and television personality Tom Colicchio said, “This has been going on for as long as I’ve been cooking. When you start really getting into this stuff, there’s so many things people mislabel.” At Mr. Colicchio’s restaurants, nearly 95% of the meat he serves is from animals raised without antibiotics, costing him about 30% more, so he charges more. He said, “Yet I have a restaurant down the street that says they have organic chicken when they don’t, and they charge less money for it. It’s all part of mislabeling and duping the public.”