Stricter seafood labeling sought for restaurants


A report released last week by the environmental advocacy group Oceana showed that 55 percent of the seafood it tested in the two counties was mislabeled. Nearly 120 samples were collected from seafood restaurants, grocery stores, sushi bars and restaurant chains.

The report is just part of Oceana's ongoing nationwide investigation of seafood mislabeling.

"Be on the look out for seafood sleuths in the Bay Area," said Geoff Shester, Oceana's California program director. He said the organization has volunteers and staff actively testing fish in restaurants, grocery stores and fish markets from Monterey to Marin.

Shester said the most common types of fish to be mislabeled in the Los Angeles region were salmon, sole, tuna and snapper.

"Of the samples we tested that were labeled Pacific red snapper, none were actually red snapper," he said.

A Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, would address the problem by requiring big restaurant chains to provide more information to customers about the origins of the fish they serve.

Shester said sushi bars were the worst offenders, with 87 percent of those samples mislabeled. Grocery stores had the least mislabeling.

One of the most concerning findings, he said, was that escolar, a deep-sea fish with oily flesh, was being substituted for white tuna.

"Escolar is known as the ex-lax of fish," said Shester, adding that many countries have banned its sale and the FDA suggests that seafood manufacturers and processors warn consumers of the "purgative effect" associated with eating it.

Indeed, in 2011, there was an outbreak of gastro-intestinal illness in New South Wales, Australia, where attendees at a lunch conference ate escolar.

"A distinct symptom reported by many ill persons was the presence of oily diarrhea," wrote health officials examining the outbreak.

Concerned about these kinds of safety issues, as well as the basic issue of mislabeling and fraud, Lieu penned a bill requiring all restaurant chains that own more than 19 in-state restaurants to inform customers of the species of the fish on the menu and where it was caught.

Lieu said the bill, SB 1486, piggybacks on another that was passed in 2011 requiring restaurant chains to provide calorie information.

He said he'd like to see a bill that included smaller venues as well, but is hopeful local jurisdictions, such as LA County, will tackle that front.

LA County supervisors have already voted to direct the local Department of Public Health to look into the matter.

The state Senate bill has passed through the Senate Health Committee, and is now sitting in the Rules Committee, where a vote will take place later by next week, Lieu said.

But not everyone thinks the bill is necessary.

"Obviously, we're in the business of serving the public," said Matt Sutton, senior legislative director for the California Restaurant Association. "And the last thing we want to do is upset a customer, or make them so disgruntled they do not return."

But, he said, this bill won't solve that.

He said the bill points fingers at restaurants without considering the numerous steps along the supply chain – from harvesting to processing to distribution and supply.

He said it would also be an economical and logistical nightmare for restaurants, who'd have to constantly update menus, brochures and other informational literature about fish that can change on a seasonal, weekly and often daily basis.

Lieu said he'd like to keep working with the trade group to hopefully "come to a happy place" with the bill.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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