In January of 2013, This American Life investigated a rumor that had seafood lovers eyeing their calamari with suspicion. The story suggested that pork producers were selling sliced pig rectum to restaurants as a less expensive substitute for the popular, deep-fried delicacy. The thought-provoking but unverified tale eventually lapsed into the realm of urban myth. The timing was interesting though, coming on the heels of one the biggest seafood fraud investigations ever conducted.
The Great Bait and Switch
From 2010 to 2012, international ocean conservancy group, Oceana, tested 1,215 DNA samples from seafood collected from retailers in 21 U.S. states. In February of 2013, Oceana released a report on the investigation stating that, “Forty-four percent of all the retail outlets visited sold mislabeled fish.” Among the most frequently substituted products were white tuna, grouper and red snapper.
Because the study did not include suppliers and distributors, we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that retailers are the sole perpetrators of the fraud, though mislabeling rates were higher for restaurants than grocery stores.
Sushi restaurants were the most frequent retail offenders. In fact, a recent outbreak of food-borne illness at a popular sushi eatery on 2 Hawaiian islands has the safety and transparency of the seafood supply chain making big restaurant news again.
Risky Links in the Seafood Supply Chain
In mid-August, the Hawaii Department of Health linked raw frozen scallops from the Philippines to a hepatitis A outbreak among Genki Sushi customers in Hawaii. A recall was issued for lot numbers 5885, 5886, and 5887, imported by Sea Port Products Corp. and distributed in Hawaii, California and Nevada. 252 people had been infected with the virus as of September 7th. 66 of them required hospitalization.
As Hakai Magazine points out, a “global seafood economy” means consumers are being exposed to a wider variety of exotic species than ever before, making tracebility of the origin of catches vitally important.
In 2007, two people in Chicago became sick after ingesting potentially deadly puffer fish toxin from fish they purchased from a retailer and cooked themselves. The 282 box shipment labeled as Chinese monk fish was distributed to wholesalers in California, Hawaii and Illinois.
Climate change is creating challenges too. Ciguatera, a dinoflagellate toxin present in some populations of tropical reef fish, like snapper and grouper, is currently spreading as ocean waters warm. Characterized by diarrhea, vomiting, pain, intense itching, numbness and even cardiovascular symptoms, some of which can last for years, ciguatera poisoning is currently undetectable in fish and cannot be destroyed by cooking. The best defense, according the Harmful Algae website is “local knowledge of safe fishing areas and safe seafood species.”
Ensuring the Safety of Your Customers
Obviously, no retailer intends to compromise the health of their customers or their professional reputation, but because commercial fishing takes place in isolated locations all over the world, tracking the seafood supply from ocean to table is difficult at best. Depending on the countries of origin, laws and standards differ and product descriptions can get lost in translation. So how do you pick the best seafood for your restaurant?
Buy fresh, locally sourced products when possible. The daily catch at your local fish market is the best bet for quality, sustainably fished seafood your customers will love, and pay a premium for. Don’t be tempted to cut corners. The cheaper supplier may have an inferior product and substituting a lower priced species for a higher priced one isn’t worth the potential damage to your reputation. Get to know your vendors. Julia Child famously recommended that cooks make friends with their local butchers. It’s still great advice. Having a friendly relationship with your local fishmonger or seafood supplier will help ensure you get a quality product every time. If you can’t buy fresh, ask questions. Find out where your supplier gets their seafood, its country of origin and if it’s farmed or wild-caught. Ask for documentation. A reputable distributor won’t be offended. As always, train your employees in safe handling and hygiene practices. The current case of hepatitis A transmission likely occurred via accidental human contamination. Consider providing vaccinations against this highly contagious virus to your employees. Make sure they wash their hands after visiting the restroom and wear gloves when handling food. Tell sick employees to stay home. It’s better to be short-handed than contagious.