Seafood Mislabeling Causes Confusion at the Sushi Bar

(Updated 10/15/16: new photo, fixed or removed broken links; 1/7/17: new labeling law in New York)

As a follow up to my piece about seafood mislabeling, let’s take a trip to the sushi bar, where things can be even more confusing. An already challenging language barrier is made more difficult by mangling of Japanese words as well as convenient translations made for the sake of non-Japanese clientele, or, in some cases, ignorance or lack of concern for fish biology.

Tai’d up in knots

In Part 2 of the Boston Globe report, the authors showed how tongues are twisted by red snapper at the sushi restaurant:

Many sushi restaurants use the word “tai” or “dai” to refer to red snapper. Employees from at least six restaurants said they were told by suppliers, including True World and Nishimoto, a California distributor, that red snapper translates in Japanese to “izumidai” or “izumi tai”.

But Japanese language specialists told the Globe that “tai” refers to a different species, called sea bream [family Spiradae], and “izumidai” means tilapia. Adding to the confusion, True World, in its Boston catalog, uses a combination of these phrases by referring to tilapia as “izumi tai.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch guide for sushi (PDF) uses the word “tai” for New Zealand snapper (and “izumidai” for tilapia), so perhaps the Seafood Watch team is conforming to sushi menu conventions and hasn’t consulted language specialists.

In past years, Casson Trenor’s now-discontinued Sustainable Sushi website had an extended discussion about “snapper” on a page titled “Tai”:

In Japan the preferred option is generally Pagrus major. This fish is in high demand and is known by a number of English names, most commonly red sea bream and Japanese sea perch. The technical Japanese term for this fish is madai, or “true tai.”

Sushi bars in the southern United States and along parts of the East Coast often use Pagrus pagrus, the red porgy, as tai. Red porgy is caught along the Atlantic coast of Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico. Historically the Atlantic fishery has been the more productive of the two, but stocks fell sharply during the late twentieth century. It was not until after fish populations had been significantly depleted that any management protocols were put in place.

If the tai at your local sushi restaurant isn’t Japanese sea perch or red porgy, it might be Lutjanus campechanus, the ubiquitous red snapper. This popular fish is also caught primarily in the Gulf of Mexico, and like the red porgy it is potentially in serious trouble. Stocks are known to be overfished, but they are still being exploited at levels beyond what the population can support.

White tuna or tummy trouble?

Escolar tissue protein patterns
determined by Isoelectric Focusing
(IEF) electrophoresis (from FDA)

Another morsel of linguistic confusion at the sushi bar relates to escolar (Lepidocybium flavobrunneum).  Sushi bars in the U.S. sometimes call escolar “white tuna,” even though the fish isn’t closely related to the intended target of albacore tuna (Thunnus alalunga).  The misnaming might occur because the flesh of the two fish look similar, or perhaps because of actual fraud in the supply chain — it’s hard to know.  Beyond the clear violation of the FDA’s Seafood List rules, escolar poses a potential health problem:  the flesh has high levels of wax esters, which can cause serious side effects including “mild and rapid passage of oily yellow or orange droplets, to severe diarrhea with nausea and vomiting. The milder symptoms have been referred to as keriorrhea [i.e. flow of wax in Greek].”*

Ironically, it is illegal to sell escolar in Japan (most likely because of the near-term health impact, not because the fish is overfished or because of its high mercury content). In the U.S. there are no restrictions, but Annex 2 of the Fish and Fishery Products Hazards and Controls Guidance Full Document (PDF) manual recommends that “FDA advises against importation and interstate marketing of these fish [escolar, puffer fish and whelk]” and the fish’s effects on the body warrants a listing in the FDA’s Bad Bug Book.

A few months after the Boston Globe’s series, the Globe reported on legislative initiatives to improve seafood traceability and ban the sale of escolar in Massachusetts.  In 2016, the state of New York passed legislation requiring that any fish sold as “white tuna” must be tuna, a measure designed in part to prevent escolar from being passed off as a different fish (NY update from 1/7/17). 

I haven’t seen anything proposed in other states, nor have I ever seen any initiatives by sushi restaurants (is there even a trade association for sushi restaurants?) to clean up terminology on their menus, or at least to offer more information about what the fish is, where it came from, and how it was caught.  The on-line menu from sustainable sushi pioneer Tataki in San Francisco (which names Casson Trenor as their “Sustainability Guru”) notates each traditional term with details about the offering (e.g., “suzuki / closed-farmed striped bass, U.S.”).  Other leading sushi restaurants, like Miya’s in New Haven, Connecticut, Bamboo Sushi in Portland, Oregon, and Mashiko in Seattle are also showing how it should be done with better menus, sustainability promises, and creative use of ingredients (like Mashiko’s famous faux-unagi made with barbequed farm-raised catfish called “namagi”).

Photo credit
Photo of Sushi from Hajime NAKANO’s Flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License

* This quotation is from an editorial in “Editorial: Diarrhoea associated with consumption of escolar (rudderfish)” by Craig Shadbolt, Martyn Kirk and Paul Roche in Communicable Diseases Intelligence (Volume 26, Number 3, 2002). I found the full text using Google Scholar (this link might work), via a PLoS ONE article about DNA analysis of tuna from sushi bars.

As I was searching for images of escolar, I learned that a WWII-era U.S. submarine was named Escolar.  This submarine, SS-294, was commissioned on June 2, 1944 and was sunk on its first patrol, probably by mines in the Yellow Sea in mid-October 1944, with the loss of the entire crew of 80. has plenty of details and photographs of the submarine and its crew.

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