To Get The Right Fish, It's Eater Beware

By Sarah Birnbaum

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Jan. 11, 2012


BOSTON — Massachusetts lawmakers are hoping they can make sure that when a fish is advertised on a menu — high-priced Chilean sea bass, for instance — that the advertised fish, and not a low-value substitute, ends up on diner's plates. However, they might be swimming upstream.
 
In October, a Boston Globe investigation found state restaurants were mislabeling fish close to 50 percent of the time. At a State House hearing on Jan. 11, CEO Roger Berkowitz of Legal Sea Foods — one restaurant the Globe cited as being fairly reliable — said it was possible that not all the mislabeling was intentional.
 
“Some of the restaurateurs maybe didn’t know enough what they were getting or maybe took the word of the processors, so I think some of the mislabeling was inadvertent," he said. "But I think there were also cases where someone abused the system.”
 
Berkowitz said the federal government's oversight has been lax. Developing consistent nomenclature for fish would help: Sable, for example, is also known as Alaskan butterfish. "It shouldn’t be allowed one name in one state and another name in another state," he said.

State Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach said his agency didn't have the resources to police fish sold in supermarkets and restaurants. All it can do is remind wholesalers that it’s illegal to mislabel and warn them there can be consequences.
 
"We’re making sure local health officials, state health officials and federal health officials are sending a clear message to wholesalers that this is considered to be a serious problem and that they will feel the impact of government coming down on them if they’re involved in these behaviors," he said. "For many people, that’s enough."
 
And for the consumer, officials recommended asking lots of questions at restaurants about where the fish is coming from and sticking to trusted places.

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