Right now there is a lot of heat being brought down on seafood suppliers and their tendencies to stretch the truth and at times outright lie about the authenticity of their product. It is called mislabeling or creative labeling, but most just see it as flat out fibbing. I am not convinced it has reached the epidemic proportions that some reports boast, but the fact that it still takes place is certain. Exactly where along the chain the false advertising takes place is sometimes hard to discern. Fillets can be disguised from the dock to the wholesaler and this false information eventually makes it into the customers purchase. In some other cases product is misrepresented at the market level intentionally in order to sell that item, or for what ever reason. No matter where it takes place, mislabeling is wrong, but that is not the final answer.
If you take a long, hard look at the seafood industry, mislabeling, or what I like to call creative labeling, is built into the system. Local names for fish have always precedented over species specific names in given areas. After time, these names have been accepted as market trading names. Take our very own Maryland rockfish for example. What we call rockfish in Maryland and Virginia goes by the name of striped bass farther north in New York and Massachusetts. Technically striped bass is the official name. If you ask someone from California to show you what a rockfish looks like you will get a picture of a much different looking fish, one with spikes on its head, large bulging eyes, and coloration that goes from brown to red to black. People from the Chesapeake Bay area would be hard pressed to recognize this fish as rockfish, but guess what, technically speaking the west coasters are right, the accepted name of rockfish represents that west coast species. On the flip side would it be appropriate for someone from the west coast to come into a D.C. fish market and cry mislabeling when what is offered as rockfish is actually a fish they might have never seen before, a beautiful local delicacy also known as striped bass? They would probably get a few looks from the people behind the counter and other customers.
There are many more examples from which to pull. How many of you have heard of Sablefish? Ok, how about Black Cod? Here's the funny thing, it's the same fish. But don't get too comfortable, sablefish is black, but it is definitely not a cod, it's a completely different species. In order to promote this delicious fish and get people to try it, the name was switched to offer something people were more familiar with, cod. This worked and people loved the fish so much so that now it can be a little hard to find. What about New Zealand Snappers? The market trading name is a snapper, but these fish are actually a type of bream. Redfish anyone? Would you be referring to the Texas or North Atlantic variety? Ahi tuna? Would that be bigeye or yellowfin? Both are accepted. The list goes on and on, in some cases the same name applies to different fish in completely different bodies of water, in some cases a cod is not a cod and a snapper is not a snapper.
This creative labeling has been built into the system of buying and selling fish and seafood products and is a completely different phenomenon than what I like to call 'conscientious mislabeling'. Mislabeling becomes problematic for the customer and the industry when a certain species is intentionally labeled as a different species. Here's an example of the difference; Labeling a sablefish as black cod is different than labeling a sablefish as atlantic cod. Black cod is a selling term. Atlantic cod is a completely different, and established species. The difference between the creative labeling and mislabeling may seem slight, but there is a huge gulf between the two. That difference is in the intention of the seller and their relationship to the product. If I know that a product is one species and I convince you that it is actually another in order to sell that product, then I have committed fraud. If I recognize that there is an understanding that the product I am selling goes by different names and my customer understands what they are buying, then I have delivered a product using an accepted convenance of advertisement. If my intentions are to deceive the customer, then I have lied. Its that simple. If a fillet is represented as something it is not, that is lying, that is wrong.
So how does a customer avoid being duped? Start by shopping at fish specialty markets. Patronize establishments that bring in fish whole. People who specialize in seafood and actually break down products in their own building usually have a better understanding of what they are working with and have less of a chance of being duped themselves by an unscrupulous wholesaler. Go to markets that present their products in a clean and orderly manner. Make sure signs are marked clearly and you should get the feeling that the market staff is eager to share information. Beware of markets where the fish seem to be underpriced. Usually if there is a 'deal' on seafood products then there is a very good reason, and that does not normally bode well for the consumer. Most importantly, ask questions. It is your right as a customer to be informed, correctly informed.