Seafood Mislabeling; What's In a Name?

Seafood Mislabeling: What's In a Name?

July 23, 2017

Up until less than a month ago, husband and wife entrepreneurs Jeff Snow and Stefanie Honda had enjoyed much success, launching the popular Jus’ Poke Hawaiian style eatery on Pacific Coast Highway in Redondo Beach, CA. Inspired from Stefanie’s Hawaiian heritage and family recipes, the hard-working pair had redefined a new food niche and established themselves as credible restaurateurs over the past few years. 

Today, they appear innocent victims to a murky seafood supply chain that let them down. 

“Before we opened the restaurant, I donated what little money I had to various non-profits promoting the protection of dolphins and whales,” Stefanie says. 

Their corner shop attracted foodies, hungry surfers and families’ alike for the laid-back surf vibe offering authentic Hawaiian ahi tuna poke bowls. Something about Jus’ Poke resonated with South Bay locals; maybe it was the aesthetics or their commitment to sustainability, offering eco-friendly containers and donating proceeds to Surfrider Foundation. 

On weekends, a line of customers poured out of their tiny restaurant onto the sidewalk. 

But that line of faithful patrons came to a screeching halt after June 2, 2017 when the Daily Breeze released an article naming their shop as purveyors of a contaminated shipment Yellowfin Tuna, having tested positive for Hepatitis A by an FDA inspection.  

Jeff took to Jus’ Poke’s Facebook page that day to get ahead of it. “Please be advised that we were notified of a potential recall several weeks ago and immediately switched tuna sources.”

The couple has been fielding angry phone calls and press inquiries on a daily basis, all while trying to clear the air and get answers from their vendor, Hilo Fish Company. In the years leading up to this incident, they’d had a close-knit business relationship for years. “They were the best of the best,” Stefanie describes of the Hawaiian based seafood wholesalers. 

Boat to Plate.

It’s a common catch phrase in the Seafood Industry. Fisherman, wholesalers, restaurants and grocers all need to market their specialty seafood to sell. That’s just business.

The issue confusing consumers is the fact that scientific names, common names and marketed names can all legally be used interchangeable at any point of a long seafood supply chain from boat to plate. From the source, whether that catch is from open ocean or aquaculture farm, seafood may pass through more than a dozen hands over several days or weeks, depending on its quality. Whole fish fetch the highest price, then fillets, on down to packaged and canned fish. 

Zack Hawkins, 37, is a seasonal commercial fisherman in Alaska’s Bristol Bay. He’s been fishing since he was a child, harvesting urchin off the coast of Southern California with his father. “We have control of the fish for a very short time and the fishing companies are not responsible to us to label it correctly,” Hawkins says. 

This summer Hawkins will work as a deck hand onboard a 32-foot vessel gill-net fishing for salmon; sockeyes, chum (also called dog) and pinks (also called humpies). A good day might yield 10 thousand pounds. That fish will all get unloaded together in the same pile onboard a larger, 100-foot crabbing vessel, then transferred again to either a processing ship or a land-based cannery. From here, countless wholesale vendors sell from one to another until product finally reaches the consumer market.

What’s In a Name?

“It may not be a lie, they are just calling it by one of it’s many names,” says Hawkins.

Recently, many news articles and independent research reports have cited instances of rampant seafood mislabeling in the consumer market. White flesh fish and tunas are the most commonly mislabeled because they are more easily disguised as higher quality species. Even to the trained eye and refined palette, the subtle visual and taste differences are hard to identify. 

“You could sell me Yellowfin for Bluefin, and I’d say, I dunno,” says Executive Chef Austin Cobb of The Strand House in Manhattan Beach. “The recognizable traits on a tuna are so, so small, it’s like the dorsal fin, the color of the tip of the fin, it’s maybe the point of the nose.” So if Cobb or one of his authorized sous-chef signs off on a delivery of tuna loin packaged in plastic too quickly,  “I could very easily be slighted,” he says. That is why he believes trust is so important between client and wholesaler.

Cobb is keen to ordering fish that he enjoys preparing and feels confident he can market. “I’ve used this Greek fish called Meagre, it’s farm raised, in the bass family, it’s outstanding.” He admits customers are scared of the name; hence, he’s sold it as Mediterranean Sea Bass on his menu. That’s not to say Cobb is inaccurate, nor is he lying. 

The FDA’s guidelines legally allow such marketing of common names be accurate in huge generalities; even going so far as to regionally describe where the fish was caught. The Los Angeles based wholesaler, Primetime can legally market and sell its Baja California, open-ocean caged, and farm-raised east coast stripped bass as a local fish on the east or west coast. That decision is entirely interchangeable. And confusing. 

Cobb prides himself on his morals and ethics. “I like to think of it like what would it be like to be on the other side of things, if I were a customer and I went out to a restaurant and someone was trying to bait and swap something to me. That wouldn’t feel right to me.” 

Much like Stefanie and Jeff of Jus’ Poke, Cobb has built a relationship of trust with one of his many seafood purveyors- Kai Gourmet. The New Zealand wholesaler airfreights directly from Auckland to LAX, sourcing their seafood directly from nearly 150 commercial fishing vessels ported in Leigh, NZ. For nearly 50 years, Kai Gourmet has worked directly with chefs and operating sustainably sourced fish within a seasonal quota system, a fact that Cobb finds refreshingly transparent. 

Antoinette Sloan of Kai Gourmet believes that deceitful mislabeling “will continue because there is no governing body that will come down and say you’re going to be fined or face jail time.” Sloan mentions she has read the recent Hollywood Reporter article and is “not surprised at all” about the rampant problem here in Los Angeles.

Kai Gourmet states that the seafood industry is more transparent and regulated in New Zealand. All seafood for sale must document the fisherman, boat, location, and method of catch. Simple. In an effort to set themselves apart from other wholesalers, the company even posts photos of their whole fish shipments on Instagram. This proactive approach to consumer engagement appears outside the norm. 

Kiriko Sushi in Los Angeles was also named in the article alleging sushi mislabeling. Owner Ken Namba posted this response on their Facebook page the following day.

“I hope you know that we don't have any maliciousness to call red snapper for Japanese sea bream, halibut for east coast fluke or flounder, golden eye snapper for alfonsino, sweet shrimp for spot prawn, and many more items. We wanted to use names [that] are popular for customers in Los Angeles.” 

Federal Regulation

Three major bodies, the FDA, NOAA and US Customs and Border Protection each bare unique responsibilities with little overlapping agendas when it comes to seafood mislabeling. 

The FDA is primarily concerned with health and disease prevention. NOAA concerns itself with the national fisheries stock data while the US Customs and Border Protection operates directives aimed at legalities of proper tariff controls; leaving amble wiggle room for seafood names and tracking to slip through their widely cast nets. 

Oceana, a leading international conservation nonprofit headquartered in the nation’s capitol, points out that while the current data is a few years old, the U.S. has “exponentially increased the amount of seafood imported at a time when the agencies overseeing our seafood supply are not ramped up enough to be able to inspect everything,” says Dr. Kimberly Warner, Oceana’s senior scientist overseeing mislabeling since 2010. 

Oceana points out that the National Fisheries Institute is suing the U.S. government for the Seafood Import Monitoring program, which is slated for implementation sometime next year. “Certainly there is pushback from industry when there is a new law or model for doing things, but a lot of these new solutions are called for by pressure from consumers right now,” Dr. Warner says. “They want to know where their seafood comes from.”

Traceability

That transparency is what has lead the FDA along with Oceana to adopt a new standard of seafood traceability. The University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada has developed a method for identifying fish called “The Barcode of Life.” A snippet of DNA is all that is needed to identify a fish and track it throughout the supply chain. This recent scientific breakthrough has many on the side of regulation hoping that further technological abilities like QR codes linked with genetic traceability will create a more transparent and cost effective approach to curbing seafood mislabeling. 

That could be good news for consumers and businesses like Jus’ Poke, presently bearing the brunt of a flawed system. But that is the future and in these stressful days, Jeff and Stefanie have found more questions than answers. “I don’t think that our business could take another drag through the mud,” Stefanie admits with a defeated tone. She and her husband Jeff have severed their relationship with Hilo and are in negotiations with a new, unnamed wholesaler.

Hilo Fish Company declined to be interviewed and no response from the PR firm, Oi Agency in Hawaii was received prior to this publication.