MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Seafood lovers across the Grand Strand order fish expecting to receive what is labeled.
However, that’s not always the case.
Seafood mislabeling, or seafood fraud, can negatively impact local economies and carry health risks for consumers, and it’s happening across the country.
“We’re undercutting our own seafood industry, we’re cheating consumers when they are paying more for what they ordered and they aren’t getting it,” explained Dr. Kimberly Warner with the nonprofit organization Oceana. “Some of the seafood substitutions carry health risks which really is a very important reason why you really need to know what you’re eating and where it comes from.”
Warner was a part of Oceana’s 2018 investigation that uncovered across the United States, one out of every five fish served was not the fish listed on the menu.
The organization considers restaurants and markets to be mislabeling when they market local fish that are not, and when seafood is sold with generic names.
WMBF Investigates ordered seafood dishes from 18 markets and restaurants across the Grand Strand to find out how big of an issue fish mislabeling is by the coast.
Snapper, sea bass and grouper dishes were ordered undercover. The samples were sent to the University of South Carolina for DNA testing.
Joe Quattro, a professor at USC’s School of Earth, Ocean and Environment, performed DNA testing on the samples to find out the actual species of fish.
All the grouper samples came back as correctly labeled. However, the snapper and sea bass results were not as straightforward.
For example, the sea bass ordered at SOHO in downtown Myrtle Beach, BoneFish Grill in Surfside Beach and Bimini’s near Restaurant Row came back as Patagonian toothfish, which experts said is not like a local sea bass at all.
“Patagonian toothfish and the Antarctic toothfish, they live in very, very deep waters so they look bizarre because they live under very great pressures in cold, cold waters of the southern ocean near Antarctica. So it takes fishing boats a very long time to bring those up and find them in these very cold waters, and they don’t resemble or taste anything like real sea bass,” Warner said.
Warner explains this is also the case for dolphin fish, which is allowed to be sold as mahi-mahi, and monkfish that is really known as slimehead.
There’s actually no such thing as a Chilean sea bass. It’s a name made up in the late 1970s by a fish merchant looking for a new type of fish to market to Americans with a perhaps more appetizing name than “toothfish.”
“The people that fish toothfish, they convinced the FDA to be allowed to sell toothfish as sea bass so that people would buy it. So, the FDA, who allows us to sell names under certain acceptable market names, said, ‘Well you can do that if you call it Chilean sea bass,’” Warner said.
And that so-called “sea bass” isn’t even a bass; it’s a cod. Still, the FDA allows these toothfish species to be labeled and sold to customers as Chilean sea bass.
The FDA does note that ‘Chilean’ has to be noted when it’s sold. This was the case for all restaurants expect SOHO.
John Maloney, the operating manager at Soho, confirmed the fish is a Chilean sea bass and if customers ask, they do clarify where it comes from.
He added the restaurant is working on new menus and will add the name change to make the name of the fish clearer.
“It never dawned on me that guests may think it is a local fish. Now I can see that it may be confusing,” Maloney said in an email.
The Australian sea bass tacos from Abuleo’s at Coastal Grand Mall came back as barramundi, which is a giant perch fish native in Asian and Australian waters.
Although it is foreign, Warner doesn’t consider it mislabeling.
DNA from the sea bass ordered at LuLu’s matched a Japanese sea bass. While the fish is also foreign, the FDA noted it can be marketed as sea bass.
At least 27 percent of the fish ordered were linked to foreign fish. However, it is only considered mislabeling if the dishes were marketed as local fish.
Many of the snappers ordered were sold just as ‘snapper,’ but dozens of different species of the fish are all allowed to be sold under the common name. They include lane, vermillion and red snapper.
While numerous names are acceptable, it can lead to confusion for consumers and the entire industry, especially as more fish are being imported into the U.S.
The FDA’s Seafood List allows consumers and the seafood industry to search acceptable market names for fish.
Phillip Bates owns the Murrells Inlet restaurant Hot Fish and spent decades in the food distribution business.
Both the snapper and grouper samples from his restaurant came back correctly labeled but he said it’s common for restaurant owners to mislabel their food without them even knowing.
“It could be from ignorance because they didn't know what they're buying and it happens. It's not their fault, but it does happen,” Bates explained. “There are a lot of games played in seafood. A lot of times, if the price is too low, there's a reason for it.”
Bates wishes labeling was more prevalent. This confusion can lead to economic and health impacts.
Warner said to combat this, it is necessary for seafood to be called its real name throughout the entire supply chain.
“Risks that are associated with certain type of seafood are not being properly screened in our processing system if it is coming in mislabeled, so we really need to know at every step of the supply chain and at the consumer level what the real name of the seafood is and where it really comes from so we can monitor for certain risks and assure that what the consumer is getting is a safe and healthy,” Warner said.
The federal government has a Seafood Import Monitoring Program that establishes reporting requirements for imports in an effort to combat misrepresented seafood from entering the United States. However, only 13 types of fish are included in the program.
The restaurant owners who are spending time and money to serve the highest quality fish said mislabeled products put them at a disadvantage.
“If it were regulated completely, where they knew what they were buying, then they would be forced to buy it at that thing and they would have to charge the same price that everybody else does,” Bates said. “So, it’s really not fair to me from our short-term, where I'm having to sell something for $20 and making $5 on it when they can sell it for $15 and make $10.”
Dylan Foster has worked in the local fishing industry for years and agrees that current industry practices are a concern.
“The unknown is always a concern. You don’t know the regulations, you don’t know the level of chemicals in the waters, you don’t know the safe practice that those harvesters and those processors are using,” Foster said. “The unknown is always scary.”
He’s trying to decrease imports and mislabeling with what he calls ‘dock to dish.’ His company, Wicked Inlet Seafood, services 35 local restaurants.
“The fish that we unloaded this morning, some of it will be in restaurant and on plates tonight,” Foster explained.
He connects Murrells Inlet fisherman to restaurant owners like Bates.
“I mean, it’s the only way to know what’s in your fish and what’s on your plate and what you’re serving to customers. You can know exactly where it came, from point A to point B. My customers, my chefs, my restaurant tours, they know exactly which boats their fish comes off of. They can meet their captains and know their stories, and they can put a human face to that fish and when you can do that,” Foster said.
To fully combat seafood mislabeling, Oceana recommends tracking imported and domestic catches from the fishing boat to the plate, and use stronger labeling.
Experts and restaurant owners also recommend consumers start asking questions about the fish they order and the labels. This will help to spread awareness about seafood mislabeling.
“Getting more information about the seafood that you are buying and the real name for it would help consumers avoid this kind of bait and switch,” Warner said.
Bates said he is hopeful this challenge will decrease in the future.
“I think the customers are getting a lot smarter. I promise you the suppliers are getting a lot smarter,” he said.