Warning: This article contains graphic images.
You’ve cleared your schedule. You’ve secured a sitter. The outfit you splurged on months ago and have yet to wear hangs neatly from the closet rack.
Date night is here, and this time it’s actually happening. No post-poning, no cancellation, no overtime hours.
Tonight is your night, and, just like you and your partner planned, you’re going to walk to the new sushi restaurant just blocks away, whose construction you’ve witnessed each and every day, whose chef is internationally-renowned, whose online menu has been so deliciously put together that you just can’t stop stalking it while at work.
These extreme expectations are surprisingly met upon arrival – you and your partner marvel at the décor, at how intimate of a space it is. You two take your seats. To start, your partner suggests, you two should get drinks and then a classic sushi roll, you know, to get your palate right before experimenting on the more unique rolls offered here.
You agree, and decide upon a spicy ahi tuna roll, priced at $15. And the night just gets better from there. The sushi, you believe, is just to die for. Bold flavors, subtle flavors, an Instagram-worthy presentation. Overall unforgettable bites.
The walk home soon becomes unforgettable too, as your stomach turns, as your legs weaken, as it quickly becomes apparent that something was wrong with your food. Food poisoning, you first think. And it’s certainly possible. But, more than likely, what you ate tonight is not what you ordered, starting with that spicy ahi tuna roll.
WHAT WAS ACTUALLY ON YOUR PLATE
According to a 2012 study by the nonprofit group, Oceana, 33 percent of fish in the United States is mislabeled. This means that the atlantic cod you’re thinking about eating right could actually be white hake. That sea bass could actually be Patagonian toothfish. That grouper could actually be king mackerel.
And that yellowfin tuna you thought was used to make your spicy ahi tuna roll – it actually could’ve been escolar, a type of fish cleverly called “ex-lax fish” due to its history of wreaking havoc on human digestive systems.
This – how one cheaper type of fish is used to mask a fish of higher quality – has aptly been coined seafood fraud. And, sushi venues are even more susceptible to it than grocery stores. According to the same 2012 Oceana study, 74% of sushi venues across the country had and served mislabeled fish.
18% of grocery stores were guilty of mislabeling, and so were 38% of restaurants (separate from sushi venues).
Why seafood fraud occurs is rather simple, and it likely won’t surprise you: it’s greed. By fishing for and selling less valuable (and less edible) fish at a higher price, margins are maximized. In effect, so are profits. But, considering that 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the United States is imported, it’s how seafood fraud occurs that’s especially perplexing. An import rate that high means that supply chains are difficult to follow, and therefore, regulate.
It doesn’t mean we can’t try though. Join us below as we trace the journey of a yellowfin tuna from sea to plate, pointing out scenarios in which fraud could occur along the way.
IN THE SEA – ON THE BOAT
You’re a yellowfin tuna, and this is going to end badly for you. I’m sorry, but it is. Because here’s what’s happening: you’re swimming in the South China Sea—one of the most-fished areas on the planet—off the coast of Thailand. And you aren’t the only one. No, you’re one of many. You’re part of a school of tuna blotting out the sea, and, though there’s no way of you knowing, coming for you all is your demise.
Just feet away, there’s movement in the water. And the movement doesn’t end. It goes, and goes, and goes. Thinking that it could be food, you swim toward that movement, toward that blur. And then, in an instant, you’re moving through the water, and you don’t know how. You try to swim out, and away, but you can’t, and you don’t know why.
A victim of the fishing method called longlining, you and several others from your school have been impaled by hooks and are being dragged through the water. Behind you, foot after foot of the hooked long line continues to unwind, snaring more and more fish—some tuna, and some not.
This is where you die. Not on the boat, but hours from now, on this hook that’s still in the sea. Tomorrow, you’ll be brought on the boat. Because you and your school were caught on this vessel’s first day at sea, you will be frozen and stored for anywhere between 10 and 24 months, or however long it takes for the crew to fill the hold.
WHOLESALE – RETAIL – PLATE
The boat docks, and, though it takes hours for them to haul the months of caught tuna off of you, you’re eventually taken off of the vessel. Into a large box you go, into more ice, until a deal is struck between wholesaler and retailer, the terms of which can be made fraudulent by a wholesaler with a carelessly-labeled haul.
Or, the wholesaler could intentionally and sneakily charge the retailer a higher price for a fish of similar appearance but of lesser quality. Hint: escolar for tuna.
Depending on the terms of the deal that is struck, you could remain whole, or you could be chopped into smaller portions, into pieces only weighing a few kilograms so that you can more easily be taken—by plane, truck, or otherwise—to the restaurant or to the store.
Next, you’re unloaded yet again, and now, if not before, you’re chopped — chopped into small, consumable portions, packaged, and stored, either in a restaurant, or in a grocery store.
Let’s say that, upon being brought on board the boat, you were properly labeled. Let’s say that that label has held true, from then, until now, when yet another pair of hands touches you, when that pair of hands re-categorizes you, based upon their own system.
Tuna. Yellowfin? Sure. But what if at the last stop you were placed with the Bluefin? What if they place you with their Bluefin? What if you’re mistaken for something like swordfish?
What if, because your expiration date is nigh, you’re sold as something else entirely, if only for the store or restaurant to break even? What if you go to someone that doesn’t want you, or, worse, can’t handle you? However it unfolds, when the order comes through, you’re selected. You’re prepared. You’re put on that plate. You’re delivered.
And, you’re eaten.
PUTTING A STOP TO SEAFOOD FRAUD
Because of the seafood industry’s rate of growth within the country, seafood fraud has been on the U.S. Government’s radar for some time. To combat it, 2014 saw the establishment of the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud. The following year saw that the Task Force’s Action Plan was implemented, the primary goal of which was to establish a seafood traceability program. Which did happen.
This program, however, as Oceana points out, requires thorough traceability of only 13 “at-risk” seafood species. Hardly even a fraction of the 1,700 seafood species regularly imported by the U.S.
Further, Oceana pointed out that 62% of the 180 seafood species specifically identified as imposters carry health risks. Consuming the wrong fish can sometimes render these health risks fatal.
So, what’s the delay? Why must more deaths occur in order for 100% of the seafood fraud problem to be confronted by the U.S. Government? Why must Oceana be forced to produce yet another report, this time detailing that, despite the U.S. Government’s attempts to combat seafood fraud, one in five imported seafood species continue to to be mislabeled?
We can be careful, sure. All along the supply chain, we can ask as many questions as we can about where our seafood comes from. But true action starts with forcing revisions to the current Seafood Inspection Program.
True action starts with you, here and now.
Garrett D. resides in West Michigan. When he isn’t writing (or editing), you can find him outside, riding a bike, reading a book, or just plain running. Other interests include sports (of any kind), music (again, any kind) and cinema (a bit pickier here).