05. 14. 2007
DNA testing sushi in Chicago
The most discussed culinary quandary for those of us in landlocked states revolves around the quality of seafood. With the most temperamental of foods being the most delicious it isn't uncommon for sushi fans to be extremely wary of the menu while traveling in the Midwest. It turns out that those fears are partially justified. The Chicago Sun-Times ran a great investigative story last week on the quality of sushi in their city, and there appears to be yet another case of restaurant fish mislabeled on the menu.
Sushi samples from fourteen restaurants, and a control sample, were sent to Therion, a DNA testing company specializing in establishing the genetic history of animal lines. Out of the fourteen samples labeled "Red Snapper" or "Japanese Red Snapper" on restaurant menus not a single one was actually snapper of any type. Most were ultra-cheap farm raised tilapia, although some were red sea bream. Red bream is often as expensive as snapper, but is definitely not the same fish.
Even assuming that there was no purposeful fraud on the part of the business owners it begs the question ""How could so many restaurateurs be taken in by fraudulent fish?" Most blamed the discrepancy on mislabeled boxes or translation mistakes. However, many of the restaurants labeled the different species as red snapper on purpose - due either to confusion over the proper names of the fish or because most American consumers are unfamiliar with red sea bream. The owner of Japonais (one of my favorites) said that the sea bream on the menu was labeled as red snapper to save the wait staff from constantly answering questions.
In the restaurant owner's defense it is very difficult to identify a fish sample from a filet. The only way to be positive as to the identity of a fish is to buy them whole. It's much cheaper to buy a box of filets than a cooler of whole fish, and therein lies the trade-off between price and quality. As technology becomes cheaper it's going to become easier for grocery stores and restaurants to provide the consumer with the full history of an animal approaching the table. I predict that until everyone realizes that improved technology equals increased accountability we're going to continue to see stories about "counterfood" fakery.