Sunday, February 12, 2012

Confusion at the Sushi Bar

(Updated 10/15/16: new photo, fixed or removed broken links)

As a follow up to my piece about seafood mislabeling, let's take a trip to the sushi bar, where things can be even more confusing. An already challenging language barrier is made more difficult by mangling of Japanese words as well as convenient translations made for the sake of non-Japanese clientele, or, in some cases, ignorance or lack of concern for fish biology.

Tai'd up in knots

In Part 2 of the Boston Globe report, the authors showed how tongues are twisted by red snapper at the sushi restaurant:
Many sushi restaurants use the word "tai" or "dai" to refer to red snapper. Employees from at least six restaurants said they were told by suppliers, including True World and Nishimoto, a California distributor, that red snapper translates in Japanese to "izumidai" or "izumi tai".
But Japanese language specialists told the Globe that "tai" refers to a different species, called sea bream [family Spiradae], and "izumidai" means tilapia. Adding to the confusion, True World, in its Boston catalog, uses a combination of these phrases by referring to tilapia as "izumi tai."
The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide for sushi (PDF) uses the word "tai" for New Zealand snapper (and "izumidai" for tilapia), so perhaps the Seafood Watch team is conforming to sushi menu conventions and hasn't consulted language specialists.

In past years, Casson Trenor's now-discontinued Sustainable Sushi website had an extended discussion about "snapper" on a page titled "Tai":
In Japan the preferred option is generally Pagrus major. This fish is in high demand and is known by a number of English names, most commonly red sea bream and Japanese sea perch. The technical Japanese term for this fish is madai, or “true tai.”

Sushi bars in the southern United States and along parts of the East Coast often use Pagrus pagrus, the red porgy, as tai. Red porgy is caught along the Atlantic coast of Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico. Historically the Atlantic fishery has been the more productive of the two, but stocks fell sharply during the late twentieth century. It was not until after fish populations had been significantly depleted that any management protocols were put in place.

If the tai at your local sushi restaurant isn’t Japanese sea perch or red porgy, it might be Lutjanus campechanus, the ubiquitous red snapper. This popular fish is also caught primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, and like the red porgy it is potentially in serious trouble. Stocks are known to be overfished, but they are still being exploited at levels beyond what the population can support.

White tuna or tummy trouble?

Escolar tissue protein patterns
determined by Isoelectric Focusing
(IEF) electrophoresis (from FDA)
Another morsel of linguistic confusion at the sushi bar relates to escolar (Lepidocybium flavobrunneum).  Sushi bars in the U.S. sometimes call escolar "white tuna," even though the fish isn't closely related to the intended target of albacore tuna (Thunnus alalunga).  The misnaming might occur because the flesh of the two fish look similar, or perhaps because of actual fraud in the supply chain -- it's hard to know.  Beyond the clear violation of the FDA's Seafood List rules, escolar poses a potential health problem:  the flesh has high levels of wax esters, which can cause serious side effects including "mild and rapid passage of oily yellow or orange droplets, to severe diarrhea with nausea and vomiting. The milder symptoms have been referred to as keriorrhea [i.e. flow of wax in Greek]."*

Ironically, it is illegal to sell escolar in Japan (most likely because of the near-term health impact, not because the fish is overfished or because of its high mercury content). In the U.S. there are no restrictions, but Annex 2 of the Fish and Fishery Products Hazards and Controls Guidance Full Document (PDF) manual recommends that "FDA advises against importation and interstate marketing of these fish [escolar, puffer fish and whelk]" and the fish's effects on the body warrants a listing in the FDA's Bad Bug Book.

A few months after the Boston Globe’s series, the Globe reported on legislative initiatives to improve seafood traceability and ban the sale of escolar in Massachusetts.  I haven't seen anything proposed in other states, nor have I ever seen any initiatives by sushi restaurants (is there even a trade association for sushi restaurants?) to clean up terminology on their menus, or at least to offer more information about what the fish is, where it came from, and how it was caught.  The on-line menu from sustainable sushi pioneer Tataki in San Francisco (which names Casson Trenor as their "Sustainability Guru") notates each traditional term with details about the offering (e.g., "suzuki / closed-farmed striped bass, U.S.").  Other leading sushi restaurants, like Miya’s in New Haven, Connecticut, Bamboo Sushi in Portland, Oregon, and Mashiko in Seattle are also showing how it should be done with better menus, sustainability promises, and creative use of ingredients (like Mashiko's famous faux-unagi made with barbequed farm-raised catfish called "namagi").

Photo credit
Photo of Sushi from Hajime NAKANO's Flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License

* This quotation is from an editorial in "Editorial: Diarrhoea associated with consumption of escolar (rudderfish)" by Craig Shadbolt, Martyn Kirk and Paul Roche in Communicable Diseases Intelligence (Volume 26, Number 3, 2002). I found the full text using Google Scholar (this link might work), via a PLoS ONE article about DNA analysis of tuna from sushi bars.

As I was searching for images of escolar, I learned that a WWII-era U.S. submarine was named Escolar.  This submarine, SS-294, was commissioned on June 2, 1944 and was sunk on its first patrol, probably by mines in the Yellow Sea in mid-October 1944, with the loss of the entire crew of 80. has plenty of details and photographs of the submarine and its crew.

Random link from the archive:  Farm Tour: Growing Mushrooms

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Red Snapper’s comeback and the threat of mislabeling

In a block of articles about sustainable seafood in Food and Wine magazine, Paul Greenberg (author of "Four Fish"*) has a bit of good news about red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus), a species that has seen a steep population declines in the last 50 years. Thanks in part to a National Marine Fisheries Service "catch share" program, populations are rebounding**.

This sounds like great news – we need all the success stories we can get – but the fish is not out of stormy waters just yet. One threat is mislabeling: imposters sold as red snapper, sometimes through ignorance, sometimes because of supply chain slip-ups, sometimes to intentionally swindle buyers (usually to sell a piece of inferior fish at a unreasonably high price, but not always, as we’ll see below).

"Isn't it a good thing," you might ask, "to be selling a plentiful fish in place of a threatened one?" For the fish, it’s not really a good thing, as eaters and buyers that see a particular fish on many menus and in many markets might get the false impression that it is thriving in the wild. Furthermore, if passing off a cheap piece of imported, farmed tilapia as red snapper allows a restaurant to sell their red snapper special at a relatively low price, diners might be misled by the price signal to think “if red snapper is so cheap, it must be plentiful.”  For buyers and regulators, mislabeling erodes confidence in the seafood market and imposes costs. For diners, mislabeling creates potential health risks via allergic reactions and toxins.

Fake Out
Seafood fraud got a lot of attention in 2011, with major DNA-studies from Consumer Reports and the Boston Globe (part 1 and part 2), as well as a report from Oceana (PDF; hear their chief scientist talk to Evan Kleiman on KCRW’s Good Food).

Red snapper is a popular fish for DNA-sleuths to analyze. Both of the 2011 studies, as well as one from 2004, obtained samples of fish labeled “red snapper” from various sources and ended up with disturbing results:
  • Consumer Reports: “None of the 22 ‘red snappers’ we bought at 18 markets could be positively identified as such. Eight were deemed possible DNA matches, one was described incorrectly by a store employee, and the species of another could not be conclusively determined at all. The remaining 12 turned out to be ocean perch and other kinds of snapper.”
  • In the Boston Globe article by Jenn Abelson and Beth Daley: "The Globe-sponsored DNA testing found 24 of the 26 red snapper samples were in fact other, less prized species, including fish collected at Minado restaurant in Natick, Teriyaki House in South Boston, and the now closed Big Papi’s Grille in Framingham, owned in part by Red Sox slugger David Ortiz."
  • A 2004 brief communication in Nature (sub. req’d) from researchers at the University of North Carolina found that 17 of the 22 “red snapper” samples that they DNA tested were actually other species (often other types of snapper).

Red snapper?  Or something else? (click photo for answer)
With fish being sold far from where it was caught and passing through many levels of distribution on the way to your table – often not as a whole fish, but as a processed fillet – it’s easy imagine intentional and unintentional mislabeling happening.  When dealing with fillets, it’s especially difficult, as only a trained expert can differentiate among the species (page 6 of the Oceana report (pdf) has a collection of fillet pairs to test your identification skills).

Red snapper?  Or something else? (click photo for answer)
One solution is well known to many sectors of the world economy:  careful product tracking. Each fish (or batch of fish) would get a bar code that travels with it through the supply chain.  A centralized database would provide “provenance” of the fish – where it was caught, what it was identified as, when it was bought and sold, and so forth.  At least two projects are trying something like this on a local scale.  Thisfish from EcoTrust Canada, and Gulf Wild (which was mentioned by Greenberg in his Food and Wine piece) assign codes to the fish in the project.  Buyers can go to a website to find out who caught the fish, and where, when and how it was caught.

The Name Game
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has rules that specify how fish can be marketed (extensive details here).  Basically, the FDA Seafood List defines which “acceptable market name” can be used for various species and groups of species. With a few exceptions, retailers can use the more specific “scientific common name” as a market name.  Use of the vernacular name or the Latin scientific name, however, is not allowed (the ban on Latin names seems pretty stupid to me, as that name is the most definitive***). Take red snapper (L. campechanus) as an example:  either its “acceptable market name” of “snapper” and its common scientific name of “red snapper” can be used to label the fish. Vernacular names like Caribbean Red Snapper and Mexican Snapper are prohibited.

And this is where we have a problem: the most basic acceptable market names cover a broad swath of fish.  “Snapper” covers 46 species, so a retailer could sell any of the 46 with the label “snapper.” Thus, an imperiled fish like L. campechanus or Southern bluefin tuna (Thunnus maccoyii) could be sold under more generic names.  An article published in PLoS ONE found this happening for bluefin tuna, where the sushi offering of “tuna” turned out to be an endangered species (I wrote a commentary on the article and related subjects at the Ethicurean). To remedy this, the FDA (and states if FDA is too slow) should update the market rules to carve out refined market names for fish considered to be threatened or endangered. Under this system, for example, L. campechanus could only be sold as “red snapper”, not as "snapper"; T. maccoyii could only be sold as "Southern bluefin tuna," not as "tuna."****

Yet another problem is the vernacular name, which is not legal for use as a market name but most likely is used in conversations between fish-mongers and shoppers, waiters and diners.  Twenty-four species on the list have "red snapper" as part of their vernacular name, with 13 of these being “rockfish” and 11 being “snappers.”

What To Do
Navigating the waters of sustainable seafood can be challenging.  One could easily write a few blog posts on that subject, but instead of that here are a few tips off the top of my head:
  • Try to follow the recommendations of  organizations like Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch
  • Ask lots of questions when buying seafood at the store or a restaurant: What exactly is this fish? How do you know?  Where was it caught? How was it caught?
  • Start exploring "green list" fish like sardines and farmed mussels, oysters and clams (for some sardine love and background, check out posts by Tom Philpott and me at the Ethicurean).
  • Consult Fish2fork, a program that develops restaurant ratings using questionnaires filled out by restaurants and through independent examination of restaurants’ online menus.
  • Get smart on the subject by reading books like Paul Greenberg's Four Fish,  Taras Grescoe's Bottomfeeder, and Charles Clover's The End of Line.

*  Four Fish is truly a “must read” if you have any interest in fish as a food source, or even if you just appreciate superb writing.  You can also hear Paul Greenberg talk about his book on many radio programs via an internet download or stream, like WNYC's Leonard Lopate Show and Fresh Air from WHYY.
** It's worth noting that some groups like Food and Water Watch oppose catch share programs for many reasons, like their potential to privatize fishing resources. Their page called Fair Access to Fish has several reports on the subject.
***  Greenberg (or perhaps the F&W editors) missed an opportunity to educate the public about the REAL red snapper's biological designation. In an ideal world, scientific names would become part of the fish buying universe along with excellent tracking and frequent DNA analysis of product. Perhaps high-class restaurant menus won't spell out "Lutjanus campechanus", but the restaurant will have tracking software that can confirm the species in tonight’s special.
**** Of course, enforcement is an issue here, with FDA already failing to properly police the 75%+ seafood that is imported into the U.S. and Republicans in Congress being unwilling to increase funding for food safety and enforcement efforts.

Photo credits
First fillet photo (Lutjanus campechanus, red snapper) from Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 1993-2010, photo by B. Tenge.  Second fillet photo (Sebastes aleutianus, rougheye rockfish) from Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 1993-2010, photo by W. Savary.

Random link from the archive: Recipe - Sourdough Pancakes