The fish you get at super fancy sushi restaurants is a fraud. They sell you cheap fish and pass it off
as expensive fish.
The Hollywood Reporter (THR) tested samples of five common fish species from eight highly rated spots (including super high end sushi restaurants such as Sugarfish, Hamasaku and Katsuya)
and found that 60 percent of specimens didn't match what was listed on the menu.
Using samples purchased from eight prominent sushi restaurants in L.A.: Asanebo, Hamasaku, Hide Sushi, Jinpachi, Katsuya, Kiriko, Sugarfish and Sushi Sushi.
The results, plainly stated, are shocking: Roughly 60 percent of the fish tested did not match what was purported on the menu, and not a single restaurant achieved a perfect score.
After consulting with biologists, THR collected sushi or sashimi samples of five common fish - salmon, yellowtail, tuna, snapper and halibut - and extracted a pea-sized cube of each sample. These specimens then were placed in a labeled jar of ethanol and delivered to a laboratory that used the same procedures and DNA sequencing used in the original study. Eight highly rated restaurants on L.A.'s Westside were chosen — all of which offered a la carte ordering and lunch service. (Omakase-only restaurants, where diners can't choose specific species, were excluded.)
The DNA analysis revealed that three fish species - halibut, yellowtail and red snapper - were nearly universally mislabeled, while tuna always was identified correctly.
Eighty percent of the samples from Hamasaku, in Westwood, matched the species on the menu, but every other restaurant had provenance issues with at least half of the fish tested.
After the slimy Japs were caught mislabelling all their fish, some restuarants doubled down on their lies. Sugarfish - which is one of the most
important high-end Sushi chains in LA - changed its menu by addressing the scandal in a footnote.
A footnoted explanation added to the Sugarfish menu since the issue of mislabeled fish entered the public eye captures the strange depth of the problem at many sushi restaurants,
one that is at once biological and cultural. "Our snapper is NZ Snapper from New Zealand," the menu now reads.
"Our Hirame is Fluke from the U.S. North Atlantic coast, which in L.A. is commonly called Halibut." When shown this text, Demian Willette, the Loyola Marymount researcher who led
the Conservation Biology study, actually laughs out loud. The fish known as New Zealand snapper is Pagrus auratus, which bears no biological relationship
to snapper; while fluke and halibut are two vastly different species. "I know that FDA specifications and Japanese traditions don't always line up, but come on:
Fluke is not halibut," says Willette. "That's like saying you're selling real crab and then using artificial crab. It's being misleading in an unacceptable way."
This problem is only getting worse.
After going to 26 sushi restaurants in Los Angeles between 2012 and 2015, it was found that 47 percent of the fish was mislabeled, according to a joint team of researchers at the University of California Los Angeles and Loyola Marymount University.
"Half of what we're buying isn't what we think it is," said the study's senior author, Paul Barber, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. "I suspected we would find some mislabeling, but I didn't think it would be as high as we found in some species."
It's not just a question of being miffed that the wrong fish is on your plate — the fraud undermines environmental regulations limiting overfishing, introduces unexpected health risks and interferes with consumers' decisions, the researchers noted.
Over the four-year study, only bluefin tuna was always exactly as advertised. While only one of 48 tuna samples was not tuna, different kinds of tuna occasionally swapped places, including two samples that turned out to be Atlantic bluefin tuna and southern bluefin tuna, species classified as endangered and critically endangered. Out of nine orders of yellowfin tuna, seven were a different kind of tuna, usually bigeye — a vulnerable and overexploited species, the researchers said. Salmon remained a largely safe bet, with only 6 of 47 orders going awry. However, all halibut and red snapper orders failed the DNA test, and in 9 out of 10 cases, diners ordering halibut were served flounder. About 4 in 10 halibut orders were species of flounder considered overfished or near threatened.
Although some short-term studies have suggested that fish fraud is declining due in part to stricter regulations, this study uncovered consistent mislabeling year over year, indicating seafood misidentification is not improving. While the current study took place in Los Angeles, previous studies detected similar problems nationwide, suggesting that the UCLA findings are widely applicable, said Barber, who worked with lead author Demian Willette and researchers from UC Santa Cruz and UC Santa Barbara. Willette is a UCLA assistant research scientist and a Loyola Marymount University biology instructor.
"If we don't have accurate information on what we're buying, we can't make informed choices," Barber said. "The amount of mislabeling is so high and consistent, one has to think that even the restaurants are being duped."
For consumers trying to avoid threatened or overfished species, sushi fraud can thwart their efforts. For diners — especially pregnant women or small children — who wish to avoid high-mercury fish, mislabeling could harm their health. And some fish are riskier than others: a common parasite found in raw olive flounder, which replaced halibut on researchers' plates a third of the time, has caused "rampant" food poisoning in Japan, the study noted.
The researchers used DNA barcoding, which uses a partial DNA sequence from a mitochondrial gene, to accurately identify the fish.
"DNA barcoding is becoming an increasingly popular tool to identify mislabeled products," Willette said. "Our finding of a persistently high rate of seafood mislabeling should encourage consumers to demand strong truth-in-menu laws from local public health agencies. Citizen-science and crowd-sourced data also have real potential to keep the consumer informed."
While some mislabeling could be unintentional, fraud could also result from the desire to skirt environmental regulations or the ability to sell a cheaper fish as a more expensive product, the researchers said. The global fish trade is a $135 billion industry, the study notes. New federal regulations governing monitoring of seafood imports went into effect Jan. 9 to address the problem. The UCLA study shows increased monitoring is needed, said Sarah Sikich, vice president of the environmental group Heal the Bay.
"As a foodie mecca, Los Angeles wields enormous influence," Sikich said. "Fish fraud at L.A.-area restaurants and grocery stores can pose health threats if substitute fish are contaminated or contain allergens, thwart consumers who are trying to buy sustainable, and impede fisheries policy. This study points to the importance of measures to improve traceability and monitoring to reduce the prevalence of fish fraud."
From 2012 to 2015, the UCLA researchers tested 364 samples of 10 popular varieties of fish used for sushi. Extending the project for four years was possible in part because it involved students from the UCLA class Introduction to Marine Science, in which Willette was an adjunct faculty member. The students were sent to sushi restaurants popular on the reviewing site Yelp to order specific types of fish from the menus. When their orders arrived at their tables, they asked the servers to confirm each fish type. Then they pulled out their forceps and scissors, snipped off a tiny piece off each kind of fish, and dropped it into prepared vials for DNA testing as part of the lab requirement for their class.
A recent study in 2016 by nonprofit group Oceana cites that 39% of the restaurants it surveyed in NYC serve fraudulent fish, including every single sushi restaurant the group visited. Olmsted -- and Ocean's nationwide survey -- admit that this eye-widening statistic is not an aberration, but the disconcerting norm. At least at the lower-quality places.
"You are probably eating some type of fake fish," Olmsted said. "If you can substitute a cheaper product for a more expensive one, it's going to happen all the time. Fraud is always going to be with us, as long as people can sell something cheap, for a higher perceived value."
Species substitution and species alteration (two decidedly dubious-sounding phrases) are common practice at sushi restaurants, and are designed to slash costs on expensive fish. They claim to serve high-quality fish at mostly high-quality prices, but switch the insides out with cheaper options. It's essentially the same as any other kind of counterfeit market. The sushi you are probably eating is like a knock-off, wasabi-covered Rolex. But when that Rolex stops ticking in three weeks, you can just throw it away. These phony fish, however, might have dire consequences for your digestive system.
According to Real Food/Fake Food, "Consumers ordering white tuna get a completely different animal, no kind of tuna at all, 94 percent of the time."
Not only that, but the fish they substitute for tuna, escolar, is commonly referred to as "Ex-Lax fish" in the seafood industry, for what should be obvious reasons. If you are wondering why serving this diarrhea time-bomb is still legal... well, it isn't in many countries (Japan notably one of them) and it was banned in America by the FDA in the early 1990s, only to be unbanned in 1998.
"So when people think they are sick because their tuna has gone bad, it's way more likely they never even had tuna in the first place," Olmsted said. Though escolar-for-tuna might be the most widespread and particularly harmful instance, tilefish (on the FDA's do-not-eat list for children and pregnant women) is often swapped for red snapper or halibut, and tilapia (which is admittedly less harmful, but still shitty) is swapped for tuna, too.
This problem of fish mislabelling is not just in our Jap sushi restauarants. The Japs have totally destroyed our supermarkets as well.
If you eat seafood regularly and don't catch it yourself, you've almost certainly been ripped off at some point. The latest report from seafood watchdog group Oceana offers an up-to-date look at just how widespread fish fraud is: Out of 25,000 seafood samples tested across the globe, a full 20 percent were mislabelled. And it's literally everywhere: The report notes that "seafood fraud has been exposed ... in 55 countries and on every continent except Antarctica."
The problems surrounding mislabeled seafood are many. Besides cheating consumers into paying for something they're not actually getting, there's also health concerns: The report says 58 percent of the "substitute species" discovered carried health risks to consumers — ranging from parasites to environmental chemicals to natural toxins found in species like pufferfish — that can prove dangerous when not properly labelled.
A couple particularly egregious examples of fraud cited by Oceana include bluefin tuna in Brussels restaurants, where 98 percent of the dishes tested actually contained another fish entirely; and a sushi restaurant in Santa Monica, California that was busted serving endangered whale meat as fatty tuna.
A species called pangasius, or Asian catfish, is particularly popular with fraudsters, and has been discovered standing in for 18 different species of fish including cod, flounder, grouper, sole, and red snapper.