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Mislabled Fish

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I am not generally the biggest fish fan in the world, and the intellectual jumps Catholics make to say fish is not meat is just hilarious to the outsider, but I do like good sushi, oysters, lobster rolls, the very occasional fried fish sandwich, Veracruz-style preparations in Mexico, etc. In other words, I eat fish perhaps once every other month or so. But the entire fish supply chain is full of outright fraud, with sellers claiming fish is one thing when it is another. Given that we are eating our way through the ocean’s bounty with remarkable speed, you would think that people could at least figure out what animal they are eating from the taste. However, they rarely can, even when eating sushi, which is basically the purest form of eating fish. That it takes DNA scans to confirm that a fish is what its sellers claims it is and that so often it is not, I guess the question I have is why eat it in the first place if we don’t even know what it is. I suppose that we always take it for granted that we aren’t eating horse or dog when we buy ground beef. Or maybe we just want meat, no matter what it is, and honestly don’t really care outside of the social norms about a) not eating certain types of animals and b) social status for eating supposedly better cuts of fish and other animals.

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  • N__B

    Is the mislabeling issue necessarily worse with fish and meat than it is with our food in general? Our ground beef may be ground horse and our bread may contain sawdust.

    Mrs__B is a much bigger fish fan than I am, but I eat it occasionally in the hopes that some of our fish may be mislabeled mermaid.

  • Bruce Vail

    I love a dollop of wasabi on my sushi roll.

    It’s occurred to me, with the pungent taste of wasabi, that a nice pieces of softened cardboard would taste about the same to my unrefined palate.

    • The ketchup of sushi?

      I actually like wasabi, but your point I think is correct.

      • Judas Peckerwood

        Wasabi ketchup… Mmmmmmmmmmm!

    • aturner339

      Of course the wasabi is usually the only thing more mislabeled than the fish

      • wjts
      • AdamPShort

        “Gritty horseradish paste dyed green” just doesn’t sound appetizing.

        • Judas Peckerwood

          Substitute “orange” for “green” and it sounds a lot like our next president.

          • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

            No, that’s orange, gritty horseshit.

    • Nobdy

      It’s likely not real wasabi either (unless you are going to really nice places.) Much “Wasabi” is just horseradish.

      So fake wasabi on fake fish is an authentic sushi experience.

      I was going to say the same thing, though. Unless you’re eating at a high-end place and eating JUST raw fish on rice I don’t think sushi is the “purest” form of fish eating at all. Lots of sushi eaters add soy sauce or wasabi and eat rolls with ingredients other than just the fish, so there really could be almost anything in there.

      Also I think some fish are more distinct when cooked. I can easily tell the difference between salmon and tuna when cooked, but have a much harder time when they are used in sushi. The cooking brings out the flavor and texture differences.

      • I was going to say the same thing, though. Unless you’re eating at a high-end place and eating JUST raw fish on rice I don’t think sushi is the “purest” form of fish eating at all. Lots of sushi eaters add soy sauce or wasabi and eat rolls with ingredients other than just the fish, so there really could be almost anything in there.

        This is a good time to note that cream cheese in a sushi roll is a goddamn abomination.

        • Nobdy

          In theory I agree. In practice…I love it because I love cream cheese (I’m a Jewish New Yorker, bagel and a schmear is our ethnic delicacy.)

          I have no reverence to authenticity when it comes to sushi though. I love the good, expensive, artisanal stuff but I’ll eat peanut and avocado roll and I’ll even eat goddamned barbecue chicken roll if you offer it to me.

          I am the ugliest goddamned American there is when it comes to sushi.

          • bender

            How do you feel about blueberry bagels?

            • Nobdy

              Be my guest if you enjoy them.

              Just remember that when they talk about the old testament wrathful god who is always smiting people, well, that’s OUR guy!

              • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

                Yeah, but they say his kid is nothing like the old man.

              • Bloix

                “the intellectual jumps Catholics make to say fish is not meat is just hilarious to the outsider”

                Jews also view fish as not-meat. There are all sorts of fish dishes (lox, whitefish, pickled herring, etc) on the menu in old-fashioned Jewish “dairy” restaurants.

                • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

                  In Korean, the word for fish is mul-gogi, which literally translates as water-meat. So at least one culture is getting it right.

                • Redwood Rhiadra

                  Well, the milk/meat distinction in Judaisim is about not violating the “thou shalt not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” rule, and that’s not an issue with fish…

                  (Which is also why Rabbi Hillel had no problem with eating poultry and dairy together).

    • Sentient AI from the Future

      By “wasabi” I assume you refer to the ubiquitous green-colored horseradish paste seen everywhere outside Japan?

  • Denverite

    The fish I eat most often is trout, which I’m pretty sure I know what it is because I buy or am given* the whole fish.

    * It’s odd. I have several friends who fish but don’t like trout. Conversely, I don’t fish but love it. We’re in Gift of the Magi territory here, people.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      Gift of the MAGA would involve toupees and plastic surgery, I guess

    • DrDick

      Trout is a staple of mine and I am always exactly sure of what it is, since I catch it myself. During the winter, however, I buy fish at the supermarket, mostly the local “natural/organic” grocery, which is very picky about sourcing. That aside, in my experience, all fish which is labeled as “rockfish” or “cod” generally has the same texture and flavor, so I do not care what it really is (and I do not buy a lot of high end fish).

      • Scott Lemieux

        There’s a mediocre local grocery store chain that sells “Dover Sole,” sometimes sourced to Massachusetts and sometimes to Peru.

        • DrDick

          Whatever you do, do not buy that! I made the mistake of doing so once and it was just nasty.

  • Nobdy

    Bring on the fish farming and lab-grown meat! Bonus that labor conditions in fish farms tend to be better than those on fishing boats (especially in less developed countries.)

    I think that fish, like anything else, are often used as a luxury item and to signal sophistication and wealth. This is similar to how it is difficult for even wine experts to tell the difference between expensive and less-expensive wines, and their palates can be fooled by flavorless food coloring so that they can’t even tell the varietal, yet wine still commands enormous premiums based on the label, and faking wine is also a big business.

    I do think it’s ridiculous how much fraud there is in the seafood industry, though, and that it doesn’t seem like anyone pays a penalty for it. It’s a good example of how markets can often encourage wide-spread lying and dishonesty and how hard it is to punish fraud with market forces in a modern society where so much of the distribution chain is hidden from the customer.

    • Judas Peckerwood

      Bring on the fish farming…

      No thanks — most aquaculture operations are fucking environmental nightmares.

      • Nobdy

        Absolutely true, but since they are done on land (instead of on the high seas) that can be regulated and fixed.

        Meanwhile it’s not like trawling fishing is GOOD for the environment and it happens in a place that’s incredibly tough to regulate.

        I’d rather improve aquaculture than the alternative.

        And we as a species won’t stop eating fish so we gotta do something.

        Lab grown meat is probably the best bet in the long term, though, if we can get around the “ickyness” of it. Personally I have no ick-factor with the idea of eating fish grown in a lab. Better than fish that have been swimming in incredibly polluted waters!

        • Lurking Canadian

          I don’t think there’s likely to be an ickyness problem with lab-grown meat. Once it’s on the styrofoam tray, most people aren’t going to care how it got there.

          Some foodies will care, of course, but that’s a small segment of the market.

          Making it have the texture of actual meat is the hard part.

      • StellaB

        Untrue. The Monterey Bay Aquarium rating system gives farmed trout two green lights for both sustainability and contamination. Farmed trout has a very small carbon footprint and little potential for polluting the surrounding area. We eat it a lot.

        • Judas Peckerwood

          You’re cherry- trout-picking. Google “aquaculture” and “environmental destruction” and get back to me.

          • rlc

            It all depends. I’ve been to a number of operations and they can be quite environmentally benign. There’s one up the hill from Palm Springs that supplies the LA Asian markets with live tilapia that manages to support a good looking wetland with its outflow. There’s an outfit in Indiana raising shrimp with very high standards and the result is very tasty, I can attest after eating it in a Chicago restaurant last September.

            The problem with aquaculture, whether recirc (RAS) or flow through or ocean pens, is that it is so brittle to faults that the economics are parlous and corners are often cut. The worst operations are very bad indeed; I don’t eat anything from SE Asia. I don’t eat any farmed salmon because… well have you ever caught a salmon and ate it that day? I have, and a wild salmon and a farmed salmon are not the same thing. Which means I don’t eat much salmon anymore.

            All that said, I suspect that eventually the kinks will get worked out and there will eventually be robust RAS operations that produce vegetable crops from the “waste” stream. Already there are hundreds of prototype operations all around the world, in a lot of places that might at first be surprising. Once the nutrient cycle gets closed, it’ll be much more friendly to the planet.

    • Wapiti

      A friend of the wife’s from back East was here in Seattle. We took her to the Salmon House and recommended the sampler, with King, Keta, and Sockeye salmons. Afterwards she said that she couldn’t tell the difference and wasn’t sure what kind of salmon she usually ate.

      I bit back the suggestion that she was usually eating farm raised Atlantic salmon.

      • Manny Kant

        You, I take it, could of course tell the difference with a blindfold on, and would never be so gauche as to eat farm raised Atlantic salmon.

        • DrDick

          I can tell the difference between some wild salmon varieties (it has to do with fat content) and definitely can tell the difference between wild and farmed salmon, which has no flavor to speak of.

          • GFW

            Yeah, “Silver” aka Coho salmon are a slightly lighter pink and definitely have a milder flavor. “King” aka Chinook are darker and have a clearly stronger flavor and a high fat/oil content. They’re also typically the largest variety. Sockeye are smaller, and tend to be even redder than Chinook but to my palate they taste pretty much the same as their larger cousins.
            I’ll eat any of those three gladly.

            I’ve never eaten Chum (aka Keta) or Pink. By reputation, they’re not as good but I can’t personally attest.

            The farmed Atlantic stuff is significantly lacking in flavor as DrDick says. It’s also less firm and less oily (both of which are negative points).

            A couple of times I’ve gotten semi-farmed Steelhead trout. Apparently they farm them to fingerlings then release them to the wild. It’s actually quite good. A lighter pink like Coho, but even oilier than Copper River Chinook! Slightly more difficult to de-bone than the Salmon tend to be.

            • DrDick

              A big part of the difference between farmed and wild salmon is diet. Wild salmon eat a lot of krill (small crustaceans), which gives them their pink color and distinctive flavor (you see the same difference between river trout and lake trout). Farmed salmon do not eat much krill and are dyed to give them a pink color.

    • sigaba

      I’m surprised there’s so much fraud when the wholesalers have such a good track record with selling fish which for centuries were considered undesirable: “Chilean Sea Bass” (aka Patagonian Toothfish), “Swai” (Vietnamese Catfish), Haddock, Pollack. And we won’t even start talking about shellfish…

      • Lurking Canadian

        I wish I could remember the details, but I will never forget the context. I heard an interview on CBC radio with a fisheries expert who was discussing the collapse of the [can’t remember] fishery. So far, that’s nothing new.

        What was new is that [can’t remember] isn’t food. It’s what food eats. It used to be the primary food source for cod. After we vacuumed up all the cod, a commercial fishery was created to sell [can’t remember] instead. And now we’ve vacuumed up all of it, too.

        More lighthearted version: my Dad (Nova Scotia native) said that when he was young, swordfish was considered essentially a pollutant by the cod fishery. Every now and then, they’d catch one in their nets, but “nobody” wanted it, so you could get it for a song.

        • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

          I was on boat trip with a guy who now fishes only part time and does boat tours mostly.

          He commented that what he fishes for now is what he used to use as bait. He said he’s going to quit when he has to start fishing for what he uses as bait now.

        • Bloix

          Poor children in Maine seacoast towns used to be embarrassed to have to bring lobster rolls to school for lunch, while their middle class schoolmates got to have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

          • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

            At first lobster was thought to be inedible and was used as fertilizer. Then it became the food for poor people. Now it’s for the wealthy. Kind of an odd progression, but history is full of them.

  • I probably eat fish twice a week in the summer time because I prefer to grill it outdoors. I don’t cook it very much in the winter.

    • DrDick

      I try to eat it about two days a week year round, though much of what I eat in the summer is fresh caught.

  • egg

    I go sport fishing in the Pacific once a year with my brother who is an avid, rabid fisherman, hunter, clammer, etc. The blue fin tuna, wahoo, and dorado that I catch, tag, clean and freeze is actually the actual species. The friends who I share it with trust me that the fish is what the label on the freezer pack says it is.

    By the way, there is no more delicious tuna than the one that is freshly cut up and eaten after a great white shark has bitten it in half when you have the tuna 20 feet from landing on the boat.

    • keta

      For years my family and friends would home-can tuna. A bunch of us would get together and buy up to 400 pounds of tuna in the round (frozen whole at sea), which would generally be around 20-30 fish. We would then negotiate a work house* and on the day we’d form a production line; from filleters (carving out the four tuna fillets from the whole fish), to trimmers (cutting off fat and cutting fillets to jar-size chunks), to jar stuffers, to seasoners, to wipers, to canner loaders to canner cleaners to wiper/boxers. It was an all-day affair, and the last jars came out of the canner sometimes late at night.

      We were merciless about cutting away all the fat (easily identified as darker flesh) and that home canned tuna was far and away the best I’ve ever eaten. Commercially canned tuna is good – I eat it all the time – but it doesn’t hold a candle to the product we produced.

      *always a nasty fight as the house chosen stunk for days after the production

      • egg

        My brother has a vacuum sealer for freezing and we can it also in bell jars. I agree it’s delicious. Smoke some of it too and then vacuum seal it. We eat it all up in a year. Even though well preserved or frozen it doesn’t seem right to go fishing again when there’s still fish in the freezer.

        • keta

          You smoke tuna? How does that taste? I had some halibut smoked once and I didn’t like it all, although others did.

  • There isn’t a single human activity that is not evil, corrupt, filled w/ lies, & eventually fatal to those who practice it, is there?

  • keta

    The seafood industry mislabels inferior fish products as superior species because they can. And because an ignorant public that clamors for the superior product cannot taste the difference.

    Here’s a concrete example: There are five species of Pacific salmon, and the most coveted (and largest) is the chinook, or spring salmon. There are runs of spring salmon that have white flesh (from ivory white to pale pink) and when I was commercial fishing we got a lower price dockside for white springs than the normal red-fleshed. Why? Because the public doesn’t accept that spring salmon can be white-fleshed, so white springs are all dyed red and then smoked; therefore they don’t command the same high prices fresh or frozen-at-sea red springs bring wholesale because of this extra processing.

    Here’s the funny bit: some long-time fisherman I know insist that white springs, because they have a higher oil content, are superior eating to red-fleshed spring salmon. I don’t hold to that because I’ve never noticed an appreciable difference. And I’ve never heard any science proving the higher oil theory. The best salmon I’ve ever eaten has been commensurate with how hungry I was at the time.

    Now, you may ask “how different in taste are the five Pacific salmon species?” Well, you have to have eaten a lot of salmon to discern the taste differences – they do exist! – and even then it’s easy to be fooled. As for identification by looking at the fish itself, check the link above and imagine differentiating between the species. Even life-long experts get it wrong more than they will admit.

    Here’s one more titbit that reinforces my main point: Open ocean salmon farming continues to be a contentious issue here on the BC coast, but there’s no disputing farmed salmon has captured a large part of the market share. Whenever I talk to folks who claim there’s no difference in taste between wild salmon and farmed, they’re always incredulous to learn that farmed salmon here is actually Atlantic salmon. The Atlantic variety is is simply better suited to a farming environment.

    • The Atlantic variety is is simply better suited to a farming environment.

      With notably rare exceptionsdrawbacks.

    • Nobdy

      People also seem not to understand that if you sauce and season your food the sauce and seasoning, unless done in a specific manner by a very skilled chef, will probably overwhelm any differences in quality in the underlying ingredients.

      Donald Trump claimed that Trump steaks were “the best.” How would he know? He eats steaks well done with ketchup. All you’re tasting is the charred meat (ruining the texture) and tomato, vinegar, and sugar.

      The same is true for the Veracruz style fish Loomis praises. Cover fish with onions, garlic, tomato, and a bunch of spices and there’s no way you’re tasting any of the species’ actual flavors, though there may be texture differences. Don’t get me wrong, Veracruz style fish is delicious, and I’m not against saucing in the least, but way too many people buy into the “label” value without considering the preparation. Even unsauced fish is often cooked in butter or oil and seasoned with herbs and salt, so good luck in detecting subtle flavor variations, buddy!

      • rhino

        Speaking as a guy trained in these matters, quality differences in fish, meat, and poultry are at least as much about texture as flavour. You can modify flavour with seasoning, but you can’t do much about mushy crappy farmed salmon in terms of texture.

        In general, ingredient quality is the least important factor in producing good food. A good cook has the skills to get good results from crap, but a bad cook makes crap out of the finest quality raw materials. All things being equal it’s nice to have incredible ingredients, but its way less important than food snobs would have you believe.

        The classic example is eggs. Tasted blind, even experts cannot tell the difference between factory farmed and free range eggs. The differences come from age and storage conditions, not the feed or happiness of the hens.

  • Downpuppy

    The Boston Globe used to do this article every year or so. They always liked to mention escolar, the dreaded indigestible fish of South America:

    Escolar is a type of snake mackerel that cannot metabolize the wax esters naturally found in its diet. These esters are called gempylotoxin, and are very similar to castor or mineral oil. This is what gives the flesh of escolar its oily texture. As a result, when full portions of escolar are consumed, these wax esters cause gastrointestinal symptoms.

    To be frankly and bluntly specific – and I’m sorry for this – consumption of escolar causes explosive, oily, orange diarrhea. People have reported that the discharges are often difficult to control and accidents can happen while passing gas. I personally know someone who ate an escolar steak one night, unaware of its side effects. The next day he was riding the elevator to his office when out of nowhere his bowels unleashed a surprise attack on his pants. As he said later, “Thank God I had my gym bag with me, which had a clean pair of underwear in it.” This explains why escolar is also called the “olestra fish” and the “ex-lax fish.”

    Bon appetit!

    • To be frankly and bluntly specific – and I’m sorry for this – consumption of escolar causes explosive, oily, orange diarrhea.

      But, enough about Trump.

  • Bitter Scribe

    The best, freshest fish I ever tasted was at a restaurant called Esca, in New York. Its specialty was something it called crudo, which is basically Italian sushi. You would get slivers of fluke, octopus, cod–whatever they had on hand–enhanced by nothing but olive oil, lemon juice and one or two spices. Delicious.

    Incidentally, esca means “bait” in Italian.

    • William Berry

      In Peru, where my wife is from, this would be called ceviche/ cebiche, except that lime juice is used instead of lemon.

  • Captain Oblivious

    Here in Florida, “grouper” is almost never grouper. This is well-known. People still order grouper sandwiches anyway, knowing they’re probably getting tilapia.

  • Juicy_Joel

    Even when the fish is wild caught and labelled property odds are it was caught by slaves

    • ProgressiveLiberal

      Listen, nobody cares when it comes to their food preferences. They could be *eating* slaves for all they care.

      • rhino

        Oh fuck off.

        • DrDick

          With a rusty chainsaw.

  • altofront

    I assume most people already know this, but seafoodwatch.org, run by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is an excellent resource for figuring out what seafood is sustainable and healthy and what isn’t.

    We eat quite a lot of fish, but not many varieties since it’s almost all wild, from Alaska, and frozen on the boat.

  • Every single time Loomis makes one of these posts, it makes me gladder that I never cared for fish or seafood in the first place. Our entire food supply chain is a nightmare, but it seems like the seafood/fishing industry is the worst.

  • YosemiteSemite

    There’s so much about this post that is off-putting. It starts with a rhetorical figure called litotes, that lets you (Erik) off the hook when it comes to stating a personal preference, and mince around it. Own up to it, Erik: “I don’t like fish.” Then there’s the religious prejudice against the mackerel-snappers, and their confusion about fish and flesh, with an attempt to cast their “intellectual jumps” as “hilarious.” You might want to cast an eye to the Oxford English Dictionary, which may give you a little more nuanced view than you got among the pious evangelical brethren of Springfield. [OED: “3. a. The flesh of animals used for food; now chiefly in narrower sense = butcher’s meat, flesh n. 4, in contradistinction to fish and poultry.”] The OED gives a raft of other definitions, with plenty of nuance, but this one is the common sense in the US, as you well know. Next come the creatures of the sea that you choose to eat, starting with “sushi, oysters and lobster.” That’s a pricy, snobbish and epicurean list. Gotten away from the pleb roots, there, eh? “[T]he very occasional fried fish sandwich”? It’s hard to know what to make of the times when you deign to eat fried fish. Are we talking cod or hake here? Or mahi-mahi? Or — heaven forfend — the fish sandwich from McDonalds. But only because of extreme time pressure, I assure you.“Veracruz-style preparations in Mexico,” for that authentic ethnic cachet, I presume. Whitefish, snapper, maybe, in a tomato sauce with whole pickled chiles güeritos and perhaps capers. I take it that the pescado a la veracruzana made in the US by my wife — born and raised in México — wouldn’t come up to the mark.

    You give yourself away in the next section completely, as the anti-fish bigot, and ignorant of fish. You assert, on the basis of facts not in evidence, that people can’t tell what fish they are eating. (Is the Springfield boyhood asserting itself again — all tastes like chicken?) That may be true for some people, and for some fish. To make that assertion cover, for instance, salmon, tuna and cod, for all eaters, is a quite a stretch. As to the DNA testing, you seem not to give a thought about what drives the desire to know what fish is on your plate. A true foodie, and food snob, trying to camouflage himself as the salt of the earth, where everything’s authentic — it’s here, isn’t it? — you try to locate the reason in the taste. In this case, it’s in the economics. Substituting gato por liebre (ask your wife) is a time-honored quip, if not an actual con. Cookie cutter rounds of manta ray for scallops? Why eat it in the first place if we don’t even know what it is? Those fish-eaters are just a bunch of rubes, and get what they deserve. And we’re back to Portlandia. May I refer you to Episode 1, Season 1, “The Farm?” Is Colin, the chicken dinner, local?

    • Cheerfull

      This is hilarious. It started strong (“litotes”) and never let up. well done!

    • Camilla Highwater

      And on top of all that, the headline is misspelled. So the post itself is mislabeled. Maybe Spellcheck was disabled (or should that be disabeled.)

  • libarbarian

    Mislabeling fish is also cultural appropriation.

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