JP eateries hooked for mislabeled fish

November 4, 2011
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JP restaurant El Oriental de Cuba confirmed selling intentionally mislabeled fish after a Boston Globe investigation was published last month. JP Seafood Café owner Phil Paik told the Gazette it’s a common practice.

Doyle’s Café, at 3484 Washington St., and El Oriental de Cuba, at 416 Centre St., were both named as serving a different fish than what was ordered by the Globe’s investigators.

The Globe hired a laboratory in Canada to conduct DNA testing on 183 samples of fish from restaurants and stores. The Globe’s results showed that 87 of 183—48 percent—were sold under the wrong species name.

El Oriental owner Nobel Garcia acknowledged to the Gazette he sold fish under a different name deliberately. The restaurant spent months serving ocean perch instead of the rarer and more expensive red snapper it was advertising.

“I made an error in judgment about a year ago, when red snapper was very scarce and expensive. The only thing I did wrong was not notifying the people” by updating the menu, Garcia said. “I didn’t do it with harm in mind or trying to pull a fast one. The last thing on my mind was making more money.”

“I didn’t hurt anybody, I didn’t harm anybody, and I got no complaints…I don’t think I should be crucified,” Garcia said. “I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong, but I did. I take the blame for it. I’ll apologize to every person in the county, if I have to.”

Garcia said he has since updated El Oriental’s menu and website to reflect the use of both red snapper and perch. Both dishes cost $13.95, despite the fact Garcia said he could sell the snapper for $19.95, he said.

“The menu will stay the same for at least a year or two,” Garcia said. “It costs thousands of dollars to change it.”

“All I can offer is a truthful apology,” Garcia said. “I won’t make the same mistake twice.”

This is just an example of a widespread problem, Paik said.

“I’ve been there. It’s a combo of everything,” Pail said. “It’s about economics of the fish industry. It’s about things lost in translation as well…It’s been going on for ages. It’s not a new thing.”

“Sometimes it’s more cosmetic,” Paik said. “It’s not trying to mislead consumers, but it’s hard to use [scientific] terminology.”

Paik used the example of Patagonian toothfish being sold as Patagonian seabass or as butterfish. “Butterfish” can refer to any one of 17 different species. Patagonian toothfish is not one of them.

“I’m sure there’s a way to do it, but in terms of marketing, it can be very tough. You want to have a simple name,” he said. “I can totally sympathize with Ming Tsai. He thought it was a more attractive name.”

Tsai’s restaurant, Blue Ginger, served sablefish as butterfish, the Globe’s article states. Sablefish is not a type of butterfish.

According to the Globe article, Tsai “thought the FDA allowed its use to describe sablefish in Massachusetts. It does not.”

Asking what species of fish is being used is the best bet for accurate information, Paik said. “You need to ask a few questions.”

“Fish and chips is the hardest to find out,” Paik said. The traditional “scrod” of the dish actually referred to a size of white fish, not a type. That means the “scrod” in a plate of fish and chips could be to cod, haddock, pollock or hake, Paik said.

“It was a misunderstanding on my part,” said Gerry Burke Jr., co-owner of Doyle’s. “I was really surprised that people sell [mislabeled fish] on purpose.”

Doyle’s sold non-specific “scrod” in its fish and chips. When the Globe asked about the fish, Burke told them it was fresh-caught Atlantic cod, which he thought was accurate. Doyle’s was in fact using previously frozen Pacific cod.

“I never really knew that it was Pacific instead of Atlantic,” Burke said. Pacific cod is usually quickly frozen after being caught and thawed just before being sold. Atlantic cod is usually sold fresh.

“It’s the best fish I’ve ever tasted. Just as luck would have it, I never advertised it as fresh-caught,” Burke said. “I assumed it was fresh out of the harbor, but it turns out it’s Pacific [and previously frozen].”

Though Doyle’s menu only ever listed the fish as “scrod”—which can be used to include all cod, no matter the origin—Burke is planning on investigating alternatives.

“You want to support everything local, but I’ll have to look [at possible new suppliers]…We’ll have to have a taste test,” he said.

Ultimately, Paik said, the best way to prevent being served the wrong kind of fish is to learn about what is being ordered and to have a good relationship with a restaurant.

“You need to be knowledgeable, but it’s definitely a trust issue,” Paik said.

According to the Globe article, Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office wants to determine what role the state can play in combating the misnaming of seafood. The Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation also wants to get involved in the issue.

As for individual consumers, a change in dining choice might be the easiest fix, JP attorney Andre Jones told the Gazette.

“A substantial issue…is whether a particular customer incurred damages or harm…Adverse health consequences, like an allergic reaction based on the mislabeling, would definitely be actionable [in court],” said Jones, who noted that this is not his area of expertise. “Theoretically, small claims court could be an appropriate remedy in instances where a customer did not get what they paid for.”

“[But] it makes more sense for a governmental agency,” like the Attorney General’s Office, “to bring a suit on behalf of consumers,” he said.

 

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