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Fishy business in sushi restaurants: Study

Research on Los Angeles sushi restaurants showed that diners were served fish different from what they had ordered

LOS ANGELES: The next time you order halibut, red snapper or yellowfin tuna at a sushi restaurant in Los Angeles, you may want to ask for proof of what is on your plate.

According to a four-year study published last week by researchers at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and Loyola Marymount University, nearly half of the fish served at more than two dozen highly-rated sushi restaurants in the city were mislabelled.

"Half of what we are buying is not what we think it is," said Mr Paul Barber, the UCLA professor who led the study published in the journal Conservation Biology.

"Fish fraud could be accidental, but I suspect that in some cases the mislabelling is very much intentional, though it is hard to know where in the supply chain it begins."

Mr Demian Willette, a researcher and co-author of the study, said that while mislabelling of food is nothing new, what was surprising was its prevalence, especially in a food-conscious market like Los Angeles.

"We did not really expect that because Los Angeles is a very foody culture, and in general, people are very conscious about what they eat," he told AFP.

Mr Willette said the study, conducted between 2012 and 2015, looked at 26 sushi restaurants that were highly rated on reviewing sites Yelp and Zagat.

Biology students at UCLA were sent out to the restaurants over the four years to collect samples of 10 popular varieties of fish used in sushi.

The samples were then tested for DNA.

Fish fraud could be accidental, but I suspect that in some cases the mislabelling is very much intentional...University of California Los Angeles professor Paul Barber

Mr Willette said that of the 364 samples tested, 47 per cent showed that the sushi was mislabelled.

About the only sure bet was salmon, which was mislabelled only about one in 10 times, and bluefin tuna, which was never swopped for a different kind of fish, according to the study.

"But out of 43 orders of halibut and 32 orders of red snapper, DNA tests showed that the researchers were always served a different kind of fish," the study said.

Yellowfin tuna was swopped seven out of nine orders, usually for bigeye tuna, a vulnerable and overexploited species.

"In some cases, the same restaurant was substituting multiple fish on menus," Mr Willette said.

"So, say, they would propose three types of tuna when they actually served the same type."

He said halibut was often swopped for cheaper species of flounder, which is considered overfished or near threatened, while red snapper was substituted for sea bream.

He added that while price was a factor in the apparent fraud that likely involved wholesalers, attempts to skirt fishing policies also played a part.

"Some of it is price, and some of it is regulations," he said.

The study warned that apart from duping consumers, the mislabelling posed a health risk for people with allergies to certain fish and for pregnant women and children, who should avoid fish with high levels of mercury.

'FOOD POISONING'

"A common parasite found in raw olive flounder... has caused 'rampant' food poisoning in Japan," the study noted.

A spokesman at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which was made aware of the study, said her office had no immediate reaction.

As for Mr Willette, he had one piece of advice.

"I would say if you are going to a sushi restaurant, probably avoid the halibut and red snapper," he said.

"Eat salmon because salmon is almost always salmon." 
- AFP

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