DOWNTOWN L.A. — Consumers rely on labels to tell them what they’re buying, but as it turns out, that might not work so well in the Los Angeles fish market.
A special task force of local, state and federal agencies found that restaurants and markets across the L.A. region were selling consumers seafood that didn’t always live up to the name on the label, including several in Santa Monica.
According to the report by the Seafood Task Force, 74 percent of facilities investigated were either substituting one fish for another without informing their customers or claiming that certain fish came from a specific part of the world without proof.
Although the survey was meant to be an informational exercise, officials referred at least two establishments to law enforcement.
Seafood mislabeling can have serious health impacts, not to mention the unfair burden on consumers’ wallets, said Tony Bell, spokesperson for Los Angeles County Supervisor Michael Antonovich, the elected official who called for the review and father of the restaurant grading system.
“If people are being charged $5 for something they should be charged $4, and it’s intentional, that’s fraud,” Bell said.
The list of restaurants and markets reviewed was based off of one used by the international nonprofit Oceana in a similar review earlier this year. While the nonprofit did not give out the names of establishments visited, the Seafood Task Force had no such compunction.
Of the seven Santa Monica outfits that got tested, five were found to have violations that ranged from swapping a less expensive fish for a more expensive fish in some recipes to mislabeling the fish’s origin.
Misofishy, a restaurant on the 1900 block of Lincoln Boulevard, was found to be substituting crawfish for “popcorn” baby lobster in one of its recipes, and escolar for white tuna.
Escolar is difficult for humans to digest, and can cause serious gastrointestinal problems, said Jonathan Fielding, director and health officer at the Los Angeles Department of Public Health.
“If you’re not getting what you think you’re getting, that could be problematic,” Fielding said.
Misofishy representatives did not return calls by presstime, but Enterprise Fish Co., just off of Main Street in Santa Monica, did.
According to the list, Enterprise Fish Co. was passing off “swai” as “basa.” If you’ve never heard of those fish before, they’re freshwater catfish, said Chef Bruce Choi, and they’re effectively the same thing.
In fact, they’re so similar that his supplier labels the box that they come in “basa,” sometimes with a second marking that says “swai filets,” and Choi has to ask the company which one he’s actually getting.
The restaurant put “basa swai” on its menus, something the inspectors said would not fly. Instead, they will have to reprint menus with the name “basa/swai” and get servers to tell customers which one they’re receiving.
“For me, with my experience with the Health Department, it’s always best that we give them everything that they want,” Choi said.
The Lobster on Ocean Avenue ran into a similar problem.
Next to the restaurant’s name, inspectors wrote “Improper identification of ‘Country of Origin,'” something General Manager Jack DeNicola described as “silly.”
The illegal alien was halibut, listed on The Lobster’s menu as “Alaskan.” However, since the restaurant couldn’t prove that the fish came directly from Alaskan waters, officials said it was mislabeled, DeNicola said.
“It’s not like we were getting tilapia and saying it was yellowtail,” DeNicola said. “We just couldn’t prove it came out of Alaskan waters.”
That’s despite the fact that the fishermen that caught the fish brought it into Alaskan ports.
The restaurant gets its fish from the Santa Monica Seafood Co., an organization which sends teams to the docks and inspects facilities that supply its fish.
It, too, was saddled with an “Improper identification” label.
The wide world of seafood labeling is a complicated one, partially because it’s difficult to tell where the bad actors are in the supply chain, be it the fishermen selling the original catch, the suppliers who sell to retail locations or the restaurants and markets themselves.
There have been multiple attempts to regulate it, including one by Santa Monica’s new State Sen. Ted Lieu.
Lieu put forward a bill that would have required restaurants to tell consumers where the fish or seafood is from and whether it was farm-raised or caught in the wild.
They managed to get it out of the Health Committee, but it was shut down by a restaurant lobbying group, Lieu said.
“One of the issues raised from restaurants is that sometimes they didn’t know or they were just being told by the supplier and had no independent way of verifying,” Lieu said.
Lieu said he will move forward with another version of the bill in the coming year, this time with more input from restaurateurs.
At the federal level, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) carried a bill called the “Safety And Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act,” which would have required seafood that entered the United States be traceable.
As it stands, the United States imports 91 percent of its seafood, and 54 percent of the world’s fish production is processed at sea or soon after landing, which makes it impossible to identify fish without forensics, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement.