SoCal Connected on KCET

Fishing for Truth: Mislabeled Seafood

Original Airdate May 21, 2014

Cara Santa Maria: Here in Southern California, we love our seafood. But did you know that you don’t always end up with what you thought you were buying? It turns out, a lot of it is mislabeled. Do you always trust the labels?

Antonio Pippens: I have no choice. I’m pretty sure from one time to another I bought things that perhaps were not labeled the way they were supposed to be.

Cara Santa Maria: In fact, stores and sushi restaurants in California mislabel seafood more often than retailers in any other state.

Dr. Geoff Shester: California fared among the worst in the nation, having some of the highest mislabeling rates greater than the national average.

Cara Santa Maria: That was the finding from Oceana, a nonprofit organization dedicating to protecting the world’s oceans. Over the last few years, they tested seafood from grocery stores and sushi restaurants in Southern California. A staggering 52 percent of it was labeled incorrectly, with snapper and tuna at the top of the list.

Senator Alex Padilla: To better protect our health, our economy, and our oceans, it’s essential that seafood be labeled correctly.

Cara Santa Maria: So how can you be sure that the fish you buy is exactly what you think it is? One way is to go right way to the source. At Dory Fleet in Newport Beach, people line up early to get the freshest fish possible. And it doesn’t get much fresher than this. Fisherman have been catching the fish of the day straight to chefs, and the public for more than a hundred years.

Scott Breneman is a fourth generation fisherman. He thinks the best way to arm yourself against seafood fraud is to know the product and the seller.

Cara Santa Maria: Are there things you can tell a customer having just fished that out of the ocean that someone running a market wouldn’t be able to tell a customer?

Scott Breneman: Yeah I can guarantee the freshness. Some markets, the fish has changed a few times..from the fisherman to the buyer, to the processor, to the market. Here, I can guarantee it’s fresh. I’m the only one who has touched this fish. I can show them the color the gills, the eyes.

Cara Santa Maria: It’s only 9 a.m. and Dory Fleet is pretty much cleared out for the day. So where do you go if an early morning trip to the fish market isn’t exactly practical. Where that’s where a company called Santa Monica Seafood comes in. At Santa Monica Seafood, they’re really careful about labeling fish. It’s really easy for them to know that this is Scottish salmon fillet versus Troll King salmon fillet, because it came from their own seafood distribution plant in Rancho Dominguez.

After a minor wardrobe adjustment, and a personal introduction to the product, I got a tour from their head of purchasing, Robert Logan Kock.

Cara Santa Maria: So this is like a warehouse, it’s like Ikea.

Robert Logan Kock: This is like an Ikea. Only thing is that all of the fish comes in and out of here in less than 48 hours.

Cara Santa Maria: OK, so it’s not like a warehouse. It’s short-term storage. He gave me a quick lesson in how they size up the fish they buy.

Robert Logan Kock: A lot of those fish come in with the size on, so it’s easy to identify. So we have a lot of confidence for ourselves in checking what we receive.

Cara Santa Maria: But consumers don’t always buy fish with the skin still on. In fact, we usually buy it when it looks like this.

Robert Logan Kock: For example, this is halibut from British Columbia, whereas this is Cortez halibut. Imagine this, maybe a smaller piece, just a portion of it, cooked on a plate.

Cara Santa Maria: You can’t really tell. Or take these salmon fillets. They look alike, and they are both farmed. But one is more expensive than the other.

Robert Logan Kock: This one was farmed in British Columbia, this one was farmed in Scotland. So this fish is different in that the fat content and a lot of other things.

Cara Santa Maria: So this is a more valuable product. It’s from a specific area. The fat content is different, but it’s from the same species. Things get even more confusing when fish have multiple names.

Robert Logan Kock: At the sushi bars, they’ve created a term called white tuna. And it’s not even a tuna. The problem with using escolar and calling it white tuna and people thinking it is tuna, is there are certain fats that are highly diarrheic. So eating in abundance after three or four ounces can be really bad for older or immune compromised people.

Cara Santa Maria: Even an expert like Logan still puts his fish to the ultimate test. DNA.

Robert Logan Kock: We do DNA testing about four times a year, we batch them all up frozen. So far pretty much everything has come out as expected.

Cara Santa Maria: There’s one more reason to know what you’re eating: The risk to wild fish populations. Wouldn’t you want to know you’re buying seafood that’s not sustainable?

As a consumer, what can I be doing to arm myself with the right information so I can make an intelligent choice about where I buy my seafood?

Robert Logan Kock: What you need to do is ask. And you need to also do a little homework on your own and understand what the nuances are between the different farming practices. You can also look for certifications. The ALC, there’s also BAP.

Cara Santa Maria: Those certification labels look like this. And if you want an up-to-date list of which fish are okay to buy, check out our website for a link to Seafood Watch. But what about restaurants? How do they know where they’re fish is coming from? New technologies like Fish Trax are empowering retailers and costumers alike, by tracking each individual fish with a unique marker.

Kim Thompson: Basically there’s a code that goes along from the boat literally to the plate. So the servers and chef should be able to track that fish and tell you exactly where it came from.

Cara Santa Maria: But California state senator Alex Padilla wants even more accountability. He’s proposing a bill that would require retailers to use FDA-approved names of fish. No renaming allowed.

Sen. Alex Padilla: It’s going to be good for our public health and the health of our oceans as well.

Kim Thompson: We need to not being afraid of eating seafood. It’s better for your health and it’s better for the environment, as long as we’re eating it from a responsible source. So ask the question. Ask your restaurant, ask your retailer where this comes from. And that’s really the best thing you can do.

Cara Santa Maria: When it comes to buying seafood, there are no guarantees. But knowledge is power. I’m Cara Santa Maria, for “SoCal Connected.”

There's something fishy about those seafood labels.

California is notorious for having one of the highest mislabeling rates in the nation, according to Oceana, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the ocean.

The nonprofit also found that nearly 52 percent of seafood from grocery stores and sushi restaurants throughout L.A. and Orange counties is mislabeled.

In this "SoCal Connected" segment, science journalist Cara Santa Maria visited the historic Dory Fleet in Newport Beach and the Santa Monica Seafood Market to find out what's really on your plate.

In recent news, anonymous reports to CalTIP (Californians Turn in Poachers and Polluters) have led to the arrest of several people accused of skimming fish from local receivers. Over the span of two months, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife was able to estimate tens of thousands of dollars worth of stolen and illegally landed fish.

How can you be certain you're getting what you're paying for? And where can you buy the best certified seafood? KCET Food's Rick Paulas and Greenpeace have done the homework for you with a list of grocery store seafood rankings.

Monterey Bay Aquarium has also compiled a list of seafood with eco-certified labels, and you can download a pocket guide from its Seafood Watch website.

SoCal Connected on KCET

KCET's Sarah Parvini has rounded up a list of five local seafood markets along the coast where you can see what you're getting first-hand.

Featuring Interviews With:

  • Antonio Pippens, fish market customer
  • Dr. Geoff Shester, California program director, Oceana
  • Senator Alex Padilla
  • Scott Breneman, West Caught Fish Company
  • Robert Logan Kock, head of purchasing

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