HORRY COUNTY, SC (WMBF) - Sushi has gone from fad to mainstream across the country, but as the industry grows, so does the possibility of fish mislabeling, said LeeAnn Applewhite, president of Applied Food Technologies.
"There's been some stiff fines or even some prison for seafood mislabeling," Applewhite said.
AFT, located in Alachua, FL, tests the DNA of seafood samples for distributors and retailers to ensure the fish is what they believe it is. Applewhite said more than 30,000 different species of fish exist.
One of the most commonly mislabeled fish on sushi menus is escolar, Applewhite said. It's often called 'white tuna' instead of escolar, but the FDA's seafood database confirms white tuna doesn't exist as a species.
Applewhite said the only true white tuna is albacore tuna.
The main concern about the mislabeling of escolar is the potential health risks associated with consuming the fish, which has a high oil content.
"It can cause severe gastrointestinal discomfort to healthy individuals," Applewhite said.
WMBF News staff ordered white tuna or albacore tuna sashimi from six restaurants around the Grand Strand. Employees picked up and paid for the fish like any other customer, then took the take-out boxes back to the station to pack up and ship out to AFT for DNA testing.
AFT found five of the six white tuna samples were escolar. Those were from Osaka Buffet, Sugami, Kings Sushi, Wahoo's Fish House and 21 Main at North Beach. Only one sample, an albacore tuna sashimi from Wicked Tuna, turned out to be tuna.
Laura Smith, owner of Indo, said white tuna is a common name for escolar in the sushi industry, however, she said she always tells customers exactly what they're getting when they order 'white fish' from the menu.
"We just tell them, 'Today we have tilapia. Today we have mahi-mahi. Today we have escolar,'" Smith said.
She said it's critical for restaurants to disclose the exact species of fish to the customers.
"It's very important for us to let the customer know what kind of fish is there," she said. "It's also very important to know they know the difference in the flavor."
Wahoo's Fish House and 21 Main at North Beach have the same sushi chef, who said customers recognize the name white tuna, but staff will always clarify the fish is escolar when customers ask. He said he'll look at adding the name escolar to the Wahoo's menu. A manager at 21 Main at North Beach said the restaurant will be changing its menu immediately.
A manager at Osaka Buffet also said the name white tuna is more recognizable, but she said she'll discuss adding escolar to the label on the buffet.
Sugami and Kings Sushi did not respond to requests for comment on white tuna sashimi mislabeling.
Another issue associated with mislabeling is fair pricing.
WMBF staff also collected samples of red snapper sashimi from five restaurants around the Grand Strand, but AFT found none of them were actually red snapper. Instead, samples from King Kong, Lil Tokyo, and once again, Osaka Buffet and Kings Sushi were all tilapia.
"Red snapper sells for about $17, $18 a pound, at least here in Florida," Applewhite said. "And tilapia is maybe about $5 or $6 a pound."
Lil Tokyo owners and managers sat down with WMBF News Reporter Amy Lipman and said their staff is supposed to know red snapper is out of stock and to communicate that to the customer. They weren't sure exactly how tilapia got served in place of red snapper. They apologized, said they weren't trying to dupe any customers, and promised to take actions against the employees involved.
A manager at Osaka Buffet said the restaurant also isn't serving red snapper right now, but it does have tilapia on its buffet labeled as white fish. The manager said she would talk to the kitchen manager to make sure the right information is going out to customers when they order food for take-out.
King Kong and Kings Sushi didn't reply to requests for comment on red snapper sashimi mislabeling.
A red snapper sashimi sample from Wicked Tuna turned out to be a fish even AFT has never seen in its testing before: cookeolus japonicus, also known as a long-finned bullseye. The fish isn't listed in the FDA's seafood database. Applewhite said it's traditionally a commercial aquarium fish.
"That's how it's listed. I think it's too big for a personal aquarium, it grows too big, so maybe one of the aquariums in museums or things like that," she said.
Applewhite said mislabeling can occur anywhere from the time the fish is picked up out of the water to when it's served.
The general manager at Wicked Tuna said a fisherman caught the fish locally then brought it to the restaurant. The sushi chef then decided to sell the fish under the red snapper name because it has similar characteristics and flavor instead of trying to introduce a new fish to customers.
Applewhite said few regulatory agencies require fish testing to ensure mislabeling isn't occurring. She recommends customers ask more questions.
View the complete reults of the AFT DNA testing below.
The number next to each sample represents the restaurant from which the sample was taken:
1. Osaka Buffet, 3. Sugami, 4. Lil Tokyo, 5. King Kong, 6. Wicked Tuna, 7. Kings Sushi, 9. Wahoo's Fish House, 10. 21 Main at North Beach
Below is a map showing the locations of the eight sushi restaurants that were tested: