So when is tuna not really tuna? Usually when it’s escolar.
Eight out of ten sushi and sashimi dishes labeled “white tuna” did not contain tuna at all, a college genetics class discovered in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
Escolar is an oily, deepwater fish in the family Gempylidae, not the tuna family. It is also known as snake mackerel, and is sometimes called “the Ex-Lax fish” because it is notorious for causing gastrointestinal problems. Escolar sells for around $12 to $13 a pound wholesale, while albacore tuna, which can be legally called white tuna, sells for $16 to $18 a pound. As a result, many restaurants substitute the cheaper fish while keeping the more familiar name. (Those that do label their escolar properly tend to stick with the more scientific-sounding “escolar,” rather than advertising, say, “spicy Ex-Lax fish rolls.”)
Mislabeling escolar as white tuna is so common that one Florida restaurant manager who was fined for misleading labeling said he wasn’t actually aware of any restaurants whose “white tuna” really came from tuna. Customers who order grouper and snapper also frequently unknowingly receive less expensive substitutes. A 2009 study, conducted by Columbia University and the American Museum of Natural History, investigated 31 restaurants in New York and Colorado and found that 19 of them either misrepresented or were unable to clarify the species of fish they sold.
Some potentially confusing labels are completely legal, however. If you order Chilean sea bass, what you get is the Patagonian toothfish. Despite the fact that the toothfish is actually a cod, caught in many places other than Chile, Chilean sea bass is its authorized trade name. While Patagonian toothfish doesn’t sound very appetizing, Chilean sea bass is highly sought after — so much so that conservationists are very concerned about overfishing. Many have tied the extreme demand directly to the name change. In 2003, a poaching boat carrying a load of illegally caught toothfish fled into the Antarctic as the Australian navy pursued it for 15 days.
In a way, all names are simply a product of convention. We regularly refer to food items of all sorts by names that could baffle an outsider. Buffalo wings in fact come from chickens, and elephant ears are made of flour and sugar, not cartilage. Yet no one claims these names are misleading.
But anyone wondering about the genus and species of their Chilean sea bass can easily look it up, since no other type of fish is sold by the same name. They might be confused, but probably not misled. Those without their own DNA testing equipment, on the other hand, have little way of knowing if they’re eating albacore or escolar, both of which are sold under the name of white tuna, though only albacore is actually a tuna.
Given how widespread the mislabeling of escolar is, individual restaurants and chefs may not be to blame. The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel found that many seafood wholesalers didn’t appear to distinguish between the two types of fish, leaving restaurant owners as much in the dark as their patrons. Mahmood Shivji, the Fort Lauderdale professor who led the genetics class study, said, “My sense is that this is an unspoken industry standard; that white tuna is escolar even though it's not legal to call it that. It may be such a common practice that restaurants don't even think about it.”
A new Food and Drug Administration program seeks to improve tracking of food, including fish, that originates in other countries. By sharing this information, the FDA could help restaurants to follow the supply chain back to the ocean. In addition to the improved tracking, technology could be used to perform spot checks. Not every kitchen will be able to perform DNA tests in between chopping and sauteing (although one New York restaurant recently started scanning each filet and piece of sashimi for radiation). But even without investigating the genetic pedigree of each fish, restaurants and suppliers could use occasional testing to build trust along the food chain.
We may have trouble distinguishing a tuna from an escolar but the more we learn, the less often we’ll be taken in by fish stories.