Something Fishy Going On in Restaurants

Discussion
Aug 25, 2009
George Anderson

By
George Anderson

Consumers
sitting down for a nice dinner and ordering either grouper or snapper
at a restaurant in the U.S. have a better than even chance of actually
getting served catfish, tilapia or some other inexpensive alternative
instead. Of course, as The
Miami Herald
reports,
these same establishments are very unlikely to inform patrons that
a switcheroo has taken place.

Mahmood
Shivji, a geneticist who heads the Guy Harvey Research Institute,
tested plates from about 100 restaurants across the country and
discovered through genetic testing that more than half had served
something other than the grouper or snapper ordered from the menu.

“It’s
consumer fraud,’ said Dr. Shivji, who teaches at Nova Southeastern
University. “You’re paying for item X and usually grouper and red
snapper are on the higher end of the price list.’

According
to the Herald report,
domestic grouper costs $11 or $12 a pound wholesale while imported
catfish is only $2.50 a pound. Restaurants that have made
the switch unbeknownst to their customers are clearly achieving
greater margins even if their actions are a karma no-no.

Dr.
Shivji’s research has found that consumers are not the only victims
of this fishy bait and switch. Wholesalers and restaurants may
not always be aware they are buying and selling something other
than grouper or snapper.

A
lack of government inspectors combined with consumers not familiar
with various species means fish mislabeling is virtually guaranteed
to continue. A Government
Accountability Office report found the Food and Drug Administration
was overmatched in trying to deal with the issue.

Mislabeling
may also have serious health consequences for consumers who may
eat a species they are allergic to or another for a variety of
reasons that may also cause illness.

Discussion
Questions: Do you think the high incidence of mislabeled fish will
lead to a crisis in consumer confidence? What can wholesalers,
retailers and restaurants do, separate from the government, to
ensure the integrity of the fish market in the U.S.?

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14 Comments on "Something Fishy Going On in Restaurants"


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Dan Gilmore
Guest
Dan Gilmore
11 years 8 months ago

I believe also that either there is no such thing as Chilean Sea Bass, or that if it does exist it is never that which is served in US restaurants under that name.

They should probably do some tests on the mercury and other stuff in those fish while they are at it.

Marc Gordon
Guest
Marc Gordon
11 years 8 months ago

I can tell you that I have experienced similar situations myself regarding food switching. Just last month I ordered a burger and fries and instead got a 12oz Sirloin with baked potato. Even worse, there was no sour cream on the side.

We as consumers must stand up against such atrocities! Or at least order food we recognize.

Liz Crawford
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Restaurant traffic has been in decline in the recession, so there are actually fewer consumers to impact with this news.

Most who have read the article or have seen something on the internet about the “bait and switch” may be apt to simply ask the waiter for reassurance about the fish. For them, it’ll probably end there.

For real foodies, the question of authenticity is paramount. For them, this type of suspicion opens the door to another potentially profit-making industry: the certification or endorsement. There are several potential competitors to be first to market with a certification/endorsement product: Zagat’s, Gourmet Magazine, Food and Wine magazine, bloggers, Chain restaurants, etc.

It is not only the recession that could drive this new industry, but also the increased scarcity of fish species. Let’s see who comes forward with a systematic approach to assurance.

Kevin Graff
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Just publish the “bait and switch” offenders and watch how quickly their business dies. That should quickly stop anyone else from doing something so completely unethical.

W. Frank Dell II
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

The question should be will “bait and switch” or lead poisoning hurt fish sales first. There has never been inspection of seafood in this country. The problem we see today is driven by two factors. First, this issue starts with a lack of education. It begins with the fisherman and continues through the entire supply chain. The chef relies on his distributor. The distributor relies on its broker. The broker relies on the processor.

Does the chef cooking the meal even know the differences? The executive chef might, but the staff may not know. This problem has been around for years. This is not something new due to the recession. Someday, the processor will step up to the plate after someone goes to jail.

Ben Ball
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

It absolutely will lead to a drop in sales–for the entire industry. The seafood industry in general, and restaurateurs in particular, need to shut this down fast.

Every kid growing up in a coastal town has been taught for years to shy away from “scallops” that have uniform thickness and are perfectly round. They are stamped from skate wing or shark.

The industry would be much better served to teach the consumer that much of what we call “trash fish” is actually excellent eating. Tilapia, “Orange Roughy” and Dan Gilmore’s “Chilean Sea Bass” are all good success stories.

Bernice Hurst
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Theoretically this could damage fish sales from both retailers and restaurants. In practice, after the first 10 seconds, I doubt it will make any difference at all. Asking the people behind the fish counter (or their manager) won’t prove anything other than how little they are likely to know. Ditto the serving and management staff at restaurants. If they claim they will ask and come back with an answer, accept it with a pinch of salt and decide whether or not to take a chance that what’s on offer will taste good. Then decide whether or not the price is acceptable. Then decide whether or not to buy.

Not many people will pick up on this story and, of those who do, trying to maintain their good intentions may often prove to be way too much hassle. We do have to pick our fights, after all.

Bill Robinson
Guest
Bill Robinson
11 years 8 months ago

This industry practice must stop or the industry will pay the consequences with a loss in consumer confidence and increased regulation. The local restaurant associations and the national organization should publish policy guidelines and self-police offenders.

It’s simple, don’t put it on the menu, unless you can deliver it.

Richard Wakeham
Guest
Richard Wakeham
11 years 8 months ago

I remember a few years ago that some type of shark meat–Blue Shark?–was being substituted for swordfish. It even happened at a supposedly high-end fish restaurant in Santa Cruz, Ca. You know the cook knew the difference even if the waiter who tried to serve it did not.

James Tenser
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

Because there are so many species of fish, with widely varying costs, this area offers a great temptation for petty fraud. I imagine the practice of “trawl and switch” is far more prevalent than we know.

Species substitution is an identified concern at the FDA, and proper labeling is a critical part of the mandatory HACCP (hazard analysis critical control point) inspections.

Luckily the harm to individuals is mostly minor. However for followers of dietary laws, the consequences may be more troubling. Catfish and shark are not kosher, for example (see http://kashrut.com).

Mass market restaurants may wish to differentiate by posting some assurances about the authenticity of their fish on their menus.

Edward Herrera
Guest
Edward Herrera
11 years 8 months ago

What data base was used to reference the 50% bait and switch? DNA species testing is expensive and the product would need to be tested along all of the links in a supply chain. There are several species of salmon, so when you order salmon from a menu or buy salmon from the grocer, you don’t know if you are getting the species you paid for. If a restaurant or grocer is knowingly buying a lower grade fish species and selling it as another there needs to be repercussion.

We can always call bureaucracy and add the seafood species validity industry to its portfolio.

Gene Detroyer
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

The earlier comments certainly pointed out the downside and dishonesty of this practice, no matter where in the fish chain it is precipitated. However, if a restaurant patron is pleased with his expensive fish meal, isn’t he paying the right price? Are we buying the name of the fish at the restaurant or the taste of the meal?

Michael Boze
Guest
Michael Boze
11 years 8 months ago

There is a serious ethical question about this business practice of bait and switch.

I am sure the seafood industry that represents the commercial fishing interests would help fight this flawed business practice.

I like the notion of flagging restaurants that commit such fraud. Your local media and Internet outlets track restaurant performance.

I can not think of a faster way to loose customers in the white table cloth restaurant business. Is it really worth the risk?

More effective maybe is the basic marketing principle that differentiates commodity product from one another for quality and purity through branding. Starkist Tuna and Copper River Salmon comes to mind.

Last thought the issue of farm raised verses wild caught fish of the same species is a variation of this scam. Nothing against aqua farming but it is a different product.

Tony Orlando
Guest
11 years 8 months ago

I stopped at a truck stop for breakfast, and on the menu was rib eye steak and eggs for $6.99. I ordered it and they brought me bottom round steak. Afterwards, I ate the eggs and told the owner what the steak really was. Unfortunately, she tried to argue with me rather than saying sorry, and I told her thanks for the free eggs.

Small town diners get away with murder, and it’s happened to me several times before, so it is not just fish dinners we’re talking about. Always give the customer more than they asked for, and you’ll stay in business.

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