Fish Fraud: The real bait and switch game
I’ve heard of black market fakes like watches, purses, and jeans - but FISH?! How in the world do you fake a fish?
As some of the most popular fish species become less populated, the price for these declining fish goes up.
A perfect example is Red Snapper.
Photo Credit: Ralph and Jenny
A University of North Carolina class project found 17 out of 22 fish they bought labeled as "Red Snapper" were actually some other kind of snapper! This is, of course, illegal, but unfortunately, the USDA doesn't have the staff or the funding to enforce it.
Another example of fish fraud is Tuna.
Photo Credit: Jule's Stone Soup
Prized for its meaty firm texture, Tuna commands top dollar and is the commonly faked fish on the market. To illustrate the problem, in another study, fish samples were gathered from 134 restaurants, grocery stores and seafood markets and every one of 23 White Tuna samples tested turned out to be something other than tuna. In most cases, the fish labeled "Tuna" was actually "Escolar" - nicknamed the Ex-Lax of fish by some in the industry for the digestion problems it can cause.
What's The Big Deal?
Today many, MANY consumers are unwittingly paying a high price for lower grade fish which is usually inferior in taste, lower in nutritional value and in some cases, may even cause illness. As a matter of fact, in 2007 two customers at a Chicago restaurant were hospitalized after eating a toxic puffer fish when they had actually ordered monkfish.
In addition to the harm that fish fraud causes consumers, the fishing industry as a whole is affected. When an unassuming public purchases fake fish at lower prices the real fish becomes harder to sell at a fare market value. Thus more fish are being imported from foreign markets - increasing the odds for fish fraud.
Grocery stores and restaurants are the biggest offenders of fish fraud. However the purchasing agents and chefs may be as unaware as the general public. Most fraud takes place at the processing plants where the fish is cut into filets making it virtually indistinguishable from the real thing.
How Can I Make Sure I Have The Real Deal?
I have found only one sure-fire way to make sure that the fish you’re buying, is the fish you think it is - buy only whole fish and learn what that species is supposed to look like.
You may not like looking your dinner in the eye, but at least you can be assured that what you see, is what you get. The best website I could find for determining fish species is http://indian-river.fl.us or http://www.landbigfish.com
Where Can I Buy Whole Fish?
Unless you are fortunate enough to live in coastal cities like Boston or Seattle, a whole fish may be difficult to come by. Most supermarkets will special-order whole fish if they don't have any, and an Asian or Latino grocery store is likely to have some selection. There are also several online fresh seafood companies that will ship overnight and specialize in whole fish! Granted ordering online can be a little pricey, but in my mind, it's well worth it for the assurance that you are getting what you pay for. All Fresh Seafood is an excellent online merchant.
How Do I Cook a Whole Fish?
In my experience, meat from a whole fish is so much better than the meat from a filets. Why? Mainly because the flesh retains moisture better and the belly cavity is the perfect portal for all sorts of delicious stuffings and aromatics!
If you have never cooked a whole fish before, I recommend starting with the grill. For one - the grill keeps fish odor from lingering in your house, and for another, cooking fish at high temperatures will help sear the outside leaving the flesh moist and flaky. The key to success is to keep it simple - use common fish that are readily available in your area. Here are two of my favorite whole fish recipes that are as easy as they are delicious!