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Something's fishy in LA's sushi supply, study says

A platter of sushi during a food tasting prior to the start of the 2012 U.S. Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City.
Alex Trautwig/Getty Images
Sushi is seen on a platter during a food tasting in New York City in August 2012.

Almost half of the fish ordered at Los Angeles sushi restaurants and bought at high-end grocery stores is mislabeled, with some of the offerings coming from endangered species, according to a study by researchers at UCLA and Loyola Marymount University.

The study, whose findings were announced Wednesday, checked the DNA of fish ordered at 26 L.A. sushi restaurants from 2012 through 2015 and found that 47 percent of the sushi was mislabeled.

"The good news is that sushi represented as tuna was almost always tuna. Salmon was mislabeled only about 1 in 10 times. But out of 43 orders of halibut and 32 orders of red snapper, DNA tests showed the researchers were always served a different kind of fish," stated a UCLA press release. "A one-year sampling of high-end grocery stores found similar mislabeling rates, suggesting the bait-and-switch may occur earlier in the supply chain than the point of sale to consumers."

Paul Barber, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior author of the study that appeared Wednesday in the journal Conservation Biology, said the apparent fraud goes beyond having the wrong fish on your plate; it also undermines environmental regulations limiting overfishing, introduces unexpected health risks and interferes with consumers’ decisions.

“Half of what we’re buying isn’t what we think it is,” Barber said. “Fish fraud could be accidental, but I suspect that in some cases the mislabeling is very much intentional, though it’s hard to know where in the supply chain it begins. I suspected we would find some mislabeling, but I didn’t think it would be as high as we found in some species.”

Here is what the study found, according to the UCLA press release:

For consumers trying to avoid threatened or overfished species, sushi fraud can thwart their efforts. For diners — especially pregnant women or small children — who wish to avoid high-mercury fish, mislabeling could harm their health. And some fish are riskier than others: a common parasite found in raw olive flounder, which replaced halibut on researchers’ plates a third of the time, has caused “rampant” food poisoning in Japan, the study noted.

While some mislabeling could be unintentional, fraud could also result from the desire to skirt environmental regulations or the ability to sell a cheaper fish as a more expensive product, the researchers said. The global fish trade is a $135 billion industry, the study notes. New federal regulations governing monitoring of seafood imports went into effect Jan. 9 to address the problem.

In announcing the study's findings, UCLA included reaction from Sarah Sikich, vice president of the environmental group Heal the Bay. Sikich was quoted as saying the study showed that increased monitoring of fish sold in restaurants and stores was needed. 

“As a foodie mecca, Los Angeles wields enormous influence,” Sikich said. “Fish fraud at L.A.-area restaurants and grocery stores can pose health threats if substitute fish are contaminated or contain allergens, thwart consumers who are trying to buy sustainable, and impede fisheries policy. This study points to the importance of measures to improve traceability and monitoring to reduce the prevalence of fish fraud.”

In the four-year study, the UCLA researchers tested 364 samples of 10 popular varieties of fish used for sushi. Students in UCLA's Introduction to Marine Science class were sent to sushi restaurants popular on the reviewing site Yelp to order specific types of fish from the menus. When their orders arrived at their tables, they asked the servers to confirm each fish type. Then, using forceps and scissors, they snipped off a piece of each kind of fish and dropped it into prepared vials for DNA testing.

“If we don’t have accurate information on what we’re buying, we can’t make informed choices,” Barber said. “The amount of mislabeling is so high and consistent, one has to think that even the restaurants are being duped.”

The researchers did not release the identity of the sushi restaurants involved in the study, in part because they expect that most sushi restaurants would fare similarly, Barber said.

“The goal is not to point fingers, but to make people aware of the larger issue,” Barber said “I think it would be really cool to work with some restaurants to test their shipments so we can start to work out where in the supply chain the fraud is taking place. I would love to know what the restaurants think they’re getting from the suppliers.”