SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Bay Area consumers have a reputation for being in-the-know. We’re all about buzzwords like “farm-raised,” “sustainable” and, of course, “local.” But when it comes to some seafood, local diners may be way off track.
Our investigation started with an undercover visit to a sushi restaurant in downtown San Francisco, our first stop on a tour of Bay Area eateries to find out if the fish they’re serving is what it says it is on the menu.
We selected halibut, red snapper, and white tuna for our random test — fish that the non-profit conservation group Oceana says are some of the most commonly mislabeled in the world. According to the organization’s research, the United States had one of the highest mislabeling rates.
Using the same DNA barcoding kits used by Oceana, we placed our fish samples into test tubes one by one, being careful not to cross contaminate.
Then we sent the samples off to the lab. Two weeks later, our results came back: 11 of 16 fish were mislabeled.
First up, red snapper.
At Tadich Grill in San Francisco, the fish served turned out to be yellowtail rockfish. At Feng Nian in Sausalito, it was silvergray rockfish. At Mijori Sushi in Oakland, we got white bass. And at Yuki Sushi in San Jose, we were served Japanese sea bream. All the substitutions are cheaper fish.
“I had some pretty heated discussions last night with the sushi chef,” said Yuki Sushi’s general manager Jennefer Koopman. She said to her surprise, her chef confirmed our findings.
“He said, ‘We order Tai,” which is Japanese for snapper. What gets delivered is Mondai, which is Japanese for sea bream,” explained Koopman.
It turns out red snapper –which is only native to the Atlantic gulf — is over-fished, so supplies are limited. The menu board at Yuki is now changed.
“Whatever we put up on the board has to be what it is,” said Koopman.
At Franciscan Crab Restaurant on San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, the chef nailed it. He said the restaurant was serving halibut from Alaska. Sure enough, our test showed it was Pacific Halibut.
But at Yuki Sushi and Mijori Sushi, we got olive flounder instead. Yuki’s manager told us when halibut is unavailable, it is replaced with the often farm-raised type of flounder.
“There is no intentional deceit on our part. There really isn’t,” she said.
The most serious case of mislabeling involves super white tuna. Our DNA test results showed what was being served was not tuna at all. Every sample we tested turned out to be escolar, a snake mackerel that’s banned in Japan and Italy.
Escolar is nicknamed the “ex-lax fish” because eating too much of it can cause serious gastrointestinal issues.
“I think that’s just an egregious example of something that’s absolutely the worst,” said Paul Johnson, owner of Monterey Fish Company on San Francisco’s Pier 33.
Johnson delivers fresh seafood to restaurants all over the Bay Area, but…