Fish switching - a danger to your health - and your pocket!

A number of recent investigations in the US have found that 50–85% of restaurants may ‘switch’ the fish on the menu for a cheaper fish in the dish...

Genetic professor Mahmood Shivji used DNA testing to check on the fish he ate at 150 high end restaurants around the country's restaurants. In Kansas City, 14 out of 15 restaurants had substituted cheaper fish such as imported catfish or tilapia for the red snapper on the menu. Further meals in New York, Los Angeles, Charlotte (NC), and Florida revealed that more than 50% of the restaurants tested had switched-out various fish items on their menus.

Given that grouper costs restaurants an average of $11 to $12 per pound, versus only $2.50 a pound for catfish, and given that the typical restaurant patron is no fish connaisseur, substitution is a temptation that many eating establishments cannot resist. Most people don’t routinely eat high-end fish or seafood products at home, so they just don’t recognize subtle differences in taste, particularly when the fish comes swimming in Beurre Blanc or pesto. When the Kansas City results were followed up by NBC News (they found an 85% deception rate) some of the exposed restaurants claimed that their supplier had deceived them. And in fact, the investigation did find supplier deception, too.

Such deception is not new. For nine years between 1988 and 1997, the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory conducted an inspection and found that 37% of fish and 13% of shellfish, including products sold at stores, were mislabeled. The deceptions included false labeling, misrepresenting the true weight of the fish, and adding colour or treating with carbon monoxide to make old fish look fresh.

There are all kinds of ecological and health reasons why this is not a good idea but it poses a particular threat as far as fish allergics are concerned if they are only allergic to specific fish. As it would be almost impossible to check, they might be well advised to keep their fish eating for meals at home where they have full control of what they buy and therefore eat.

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First published in September 2009

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