|By William Mullen, Chicago Tribune|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
July 15, 2004 - Much of the fish sold as red snapper, a familiar and expensive favorite of seafood lovers for its firm texture and nutty flavor, isn't red snapper at all, according to an article in Thursday's issue of the research journal Nature.
Genetic analysis of 22 "red snapper" fillets purchased in eight states revealed that 17 of them--or 77 percent--came from fish other than Lutjanus campechanus, a long-overfished species caught primarily off Florida's gulf coast.
Seafood suppliers, independent watchdogs and other experts said those findings are not shocking in an industry plagued with confusing, and sometimes illegal, marketing practices.
Because many commercial fish species can be legally marketed under many different names, consumers can't always be sure they are getting what they are paying for.
"This is a really good example of a very common problem in the seafood industry," said Henry Lovejoy, president of EcoFish, a New Hampshire seafood supplier that deals only in fish species that can be harvested from self-sustaining wild populations.
"It has always been something of a joke in the industry that so many species are marketed under three or four different names."
Scientifically, snappers belong to the Lutjanus family, a strictly defined group of fish species of which the red snapper is generally considered the most tasty.
But many other fish are marketed as snapper to make them more appealing to consumers. Rockfish found along the U.S. West Coast, for example, are sold as "Pacific red snapper."
"It is a marketing thing, not a fraud thing," said Howard Johnson, an Oregon-based seafood industry analyst. "People like the name Pacific red snapper rather than, say, rasphead rockfish."
Marketers often sell as snapper fish that are not even distantly related to the snapper family, said Joey Brookhart, a marketing specialist with SeaWeb, an ocean conservation policy group.
Labeling a rockfish a "Pacific snapper" or an Alaskan sablefish a "black cod" isn't necessarily illegal under federal law.
"What is illegal," said Brookhart, "is intentional mislabeling to make a profit or passing off an inferior quality fish as a higher quality one."
Distributors who marketed beluga caviar that actually came from species other than beluga sturgeon have been prosecuted, she said, as have those who have counterfeited sea scallops with pieces of meat carved from the wings of skates, a fish closely related to stingrays.
Linda Candler, a spokeswoman for the National Fisheries Institute, the largest seafood trade association in the U.S., said the results of the North Carolina study are dubious because of the small size of the test sample.
"We think the percentages are quite overstated," she said. "The study was too small to make any large-scale assumptions. There may be some intentional substitutions [by seafood suppliers], but it is not common."
The research began mostly as an innocent exercise in which Peter Marko, an assistant professor of marine science at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, was training graduate students in how to extract and sequence DNA from animal cells.
At Thanksgiving time in 2002, Marko asked the students to purchase red snapper fillets at the supermarket as they scattered for the holiday to hometowns across the country.
"It was just a little class project so they could learn molecular genetic techniques," said Marko, the principal author of the Nature article. "There is lots of anecdotal evidence that fish is often mislabeled, so I thought we might find a few misidentified fish, but the scale of the substitution that we found was really surprising."
About 30 million pounds of red snapper are harvested from U.S. waters each year, and the National Marine Fishery Service tightly monitors the annual draw. When fishing fleets reach a quota, the harvest season is ended to give the wild fish stocks a chance to replenish.
The limitations on red snapper keep the retail price high, $8 to $10 a pound. That only adds to the temptation for operators along the supply chain to substitute other fish, said Marko.
"Mislabeling to this extent not only defrauds consumers," he wrote in Nature, "but also risks adversely affecting estimates of stock size if it influences the reporting of catch data used in fisheries management."
Experts said it is unlikely that the fishermen themselves would routinely label other fish as red snapper. If they overreported their harvest, it could end their fishing season prematurely.
But as the fish enter a complex processing and distribution chain, any number of players could mislabel them.
"It is a huge problem," said Bob Sullivan, president of Plitt Seafood, a West Side seafood distributor. "I have customers who complain to me that why should they pay me $10 a pound for red snapper when so-and-so is charging only $5 a pound. I tell them what they are buying for sure isn't red snapper, but I have to compete with those sorts of knucklehead operators."
Telling the difference between many fish species once they have been processed into fillets can be very tricky for even the savviest experts.
"At the post-processing stage, when you are looking at a fillet, without DNA testing it is very difficult to know what kind of fish you have," Candler said.
For the most part, average consumers as well as seafood chefs have to trust the suppliers. With red snapper, however, some chefs said they insist on receiving the whole fish, not fillets, to make sure.
"People will try to send you grouper instead of snapper, and if it is already filleted, it is hard to tell visually," said George Bumbaris, executive chef at the Ritz Carlton Hotel.
Distributors like Sullivan and Lovejoy believe the federal government could better protect consumers by insisting on a unified nomenclature for the industry.
"In Europe, everybody in the chain up to the retail end has to use the scientifically assigned Latin name on the product, so that there is no mistake," Sullivan said. "Maybe we should consider doing the same."
IDENTIFYING RED SNAPPER
About 75 percent of fish being sold as red snapper are actually a different type of snapper, such as the lane or vermilion, or another species, according to a study released Thursday. While the 22 fish analyzed have distinct features, they become indistinguishable when filleted.
All three fish are found in the western Atlantic Ocean between North Carolina and Brazil.
Distinguishing features: Pinkish red color over entire body with white underside and a dark fringe along the back and tail fins; long triangular snout; large head and small red eyes.
Size: 24-39 inches
Distinguishing features: Entire body is red; has short diagonal lines formed by spots on the scales; sometimes has yellow streaks; eyes and mouth point upward.
Size: 15-23 inches
Distinguishing features: Rose color with a greenish tint on the back and upper sides; eight to 10 horizontal yellow stripes on the sides; a black spot on side about as large as its eye.
Size: 14-20 inches
SOURCES: "Mislabelling of a depleted reef fish," Nature; South Atlantic Fishery Management Council; Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
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