April 21, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER

Seafood's Great Bait-And-Switch Debate | Meal Ticket

Courtesy Ken Stanek Photography
Figuring out whether the fish on your plate is as advertised is harder than you’d imagine.

Forget the smell test.

Diners today can barely trust their own eyes when it comes to divining what type of seafood is poised to pass their lips.

The issue, tagged “seafood fraud” by industry watchdogs, touches on a range of interrelated concerns from food security to basic economics.

A broad coalition of sustainability-minded chefs, seafood wholesalers and advocacy groups are fighting to improve traceability and accountability in the seafood-marketing realm.

And they’re doing so, at least in part, by dispelling the myth that seeing necessarily correlates to believing.

Hook, Line and Sinker

As part of an ongoing effort to expose suspect seafood offerings, the international conservation group Oceana snatched up 1,215 samples from 674 retail stores scattered across 21 states. It discovered that roughly one-third of the purchases were mislabeled, according to existing Food and Drug Administration standards.

The most commonly counterfeited fish in the bunch: red snapper. Only seven of the 120 samples sold as such were the real deal.

Oceana Campaign Director Beth Lowell says the intentional swapping of ocean species affects all, from penny-pinchers to the nutrition-minded.

“Seafood fraud can certainly thwart your best efforts,” she told a crowd of nearly 100 participants who recently gathered at the National Aquarium for a tasting menu of mystery fish (more on that in a second).

Oceana warned Congress about the dangers of mislabeling last spring, huddling with Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey, who’ll soon represent Massachusetts in the Senate, and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, as well as Senate Democrats Mark Begich of Alaska, Barbara Boxer of California and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, about the largely under-the-radar issue.

The lobbying effort spawned the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act, bicameral bills (HR 1012, S 520) calling for enhanced identification and traceability standards that were reintroduced this March.

While he is sympathetic to Oceana’s mission, Joe Lasprogata, vice president of new product development at Samuels & Son Seafood, cautioned that the group might be casting too wide a net. “Any time you’re not getting what you pay for, it’s a problem,” he asserted. “But how big it is is debatable.”

The Whole Story

Xavier Deshayes, executive chef at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, admitted that even though he’s around seafood all the time, identifying a popular species once it’s been filleted — much less after it’s fully prepared — could be a daunting task.

“Once it’s cooked ... it’s going to be difficult for you,” he said, adding that spicy sauces provide the perfect camouflage for sneaking carefully selected imposters past unsuspecting diners.

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