5@5 - How to knowledgeably buy seafood
February 28th, 2013
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

Last week, a nationwide study was released that drew attention to the amount of seafood being labeled, sold and served as a species it is not.

Out of the 1,215 samples tested by ocean conservation group Oceana, 401 were determined to be mislabeled.

Amid the seafood sleuthing, Wayne Samiere says consumer knowledge is power. Samiere is the founder and CEO of Honolulu Fish Company and a trained marine biologist; he has also worked for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

"Information about various types of seafood is not as familiar to consumers as the basic facts about beef, chicken and pork," Samiere said. "Reputable seafood vendors make an effort to educate their customers about products they are selling. However, there are vendors who want to label their seafood products with a name that consumers know and find appealing."

With a few easy tricks, Samiere says you can feel empowered to avoid the old “bait and switch” problem next time you visit your local seafood counter or restaurant.

Five Ways to Knowledgeably Buy Seafood: Wayne Samiere

wayne samiere
1. Warning signs
A consumer should enjoy seafood in restaurants that have a reputation for serving quality food. There are some warning signs that may indicate a “bait and switch” establishment. These include: When the price of a dish is just too good to be true; when the server seems quite unknowledgeable about the fish; and when the restaurant doesn’t seem at all excited about the fish they’re offering. When any of these happen, consider ordering something (or going somewhere) else.

Another simple question you can ask waitstaff or a seafood retailer is: "Would you eat the fish raw as sashimi or sushi?" Sashimi requires the highest standard seafood products. A good vendor selling a respectable fish product won’t hesitate to say yes. If they have any doubts about the freshness or wholesomeness of their fish, you will usually be able to detect it in their response.

2. Educate yourself
The best way to better protect yourself against mislabeling is to simply learn more about fish. You can use the internet to study up on raw and prepared fish pictures, and to learn about the specific characteristics found in each species.

For example, sea bass and red snapper are two popular  fish that are available at restaurants around the globe. Unfortunately, they often can be the victim of the old bait-and-switch. To prevent this from happening, learn what characteristics each species offers and then research their substitutes. Any flaky, white meat fish can be substituted for sea bass or snapper including pollock, flatfishes, tilapia or catfish.

3. Avoid pre-frozen and pre-treated tuna
Before purchasing fresh tuna from a local retailer, ask the salesperson if the tuna has been previously frozen and if carbon monoxide or tasteless smoke has been used to process the tuna. When tuna is exposed to carbon monoxide or tasteless smoke, the fish meat turns red and will stay red even when it is frozen or decomposing. As a result, any visual clues about the freshness of the fish will be masked, making it nearly impossible for a consumer to know the quality level of the tuna.

4. U.S. vs. foreign fish
When dining at a restaurant, ask the waitstaff or chef if the fish was caught in the U.S. or in a foreign country. U.S.-caught fish are handled and processed by closely monitored U.S. factories. U.S. fish processing factories must abide by strict health and sanitation regulations. Unfortunately, a lot of foreign-caught fish come from overseas facilities that are not regulated and are often far below U.S. standards. Consumers want to avoid purchasing fish that has been inside an unregulated facility.

5. Use your nose!
The best tool a consumer has to determine the safety of their seafood is their nose. Raw, uncooked seafood of any kind should not smell offensive in any way. If you don’t like the smell of something, you won’t like the taste. We all have natural sensors for detecting bad, offensive odors that could be caused by decomposition. Good fish products will not smell unpleasant, no matter how strong their natural smell may be.

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Fishing • Food Safety • Think

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soundoff (51 Responses)
  1. bobber

    The closest I ever get to sushi, is the California roll. My mother said you can tell how loud the fish was when you cook it up in the fire. They sure like to wiggle when you try to buy them.

    March 3, 2013 at 11:07 am |
  2. behonest

    Their suggestions are rather useless. If the store was trying to trick you, like those questions will bring any honest respond to help you determine if the fish they are selling is the right kind or not. Non-sense article.

    March 1, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  3. tk

    I'm just someone who loves fish, but like many of you, I don't have confidence in what I'm buying.

    Is there a worldwide agreed upon standardized method to measure fish freshness and its labeling regulations? On top of this, the proper authorities needs to have the power to enforce if it doesn't meet these requirements. The entire supply chain from the fish farms, shippers, wholesalers, supplier, and vendors/restaurants needs to be completely transparent.

    Also, we as consumers need to be educated on these standards to make everyone accountable. How come there is no objective measuring standards that can be agreed upon for the Fish industry? If their is, let me know. Many other major industries have strict standards that it's accountable for.

    March 1, 2013 at 2:16 pm |
    • sheldon

      Kinda difficult to have a world standard when U.S. agencies do not have a system in place for something as simple as false labeling of seafood. Legally you can call and sell a catfish as a mud grouper and you are okay.

      March 20, 2013 at 7:14 pm |
  4. jeff

    This issue is much more difficult and complex that the author seems to appreciate. The full report at http://oceana.org/sites/default/files/reports/National_Seafood_Fraud_Testing_Results_FINAL.pdf was very enlightening to me. The incorrect labeling of fish is so pervasive, it must be either accepted as common practice, or be unknown to the seller. As an example, with regard to white tuna, wikipedia claims escolar is often called white tuna. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_tuna.


    March 1, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  5. Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

    #5 is applies to women, as well.

    March 1, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
    • Dave

      As usual you are speculating, never having been close enough to a woman for actual experience in the matter.

      March 1, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

        Dave's not here.

        March 1, 2013 at 2:30 pm |
  6. taco bender

    one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish

    March 1, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  7. weezer

    Most of the negative publicity over Asian fish farmers was spread by domestic fish farmers worried about their market share (google swai - Vietnamese catfish). An American dept of agriculture group went to Vietnam and found their farms were cleaner than the US ones and used less drugs.

    And the comments about fish being frozen are correct - almost all seafood is frozen first; usually at sea after it's caught. I never buy shellfish which is thawed - it means it's been sitting behind the counter for hours (or days).

    March 1, 2013 at 11:34 am |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      Swai is some of the most tasty fish you can buy, in my book.

      March 1, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
  8. Steve

    What a BS, wimpy article. Ask this, ask that.. We need to work to identify the fraud and stamp it out, not just make sure we aren't duped. How about telling us what we can do about fraud if we discover it? Lets put these restaurants or suppliers out of business.

    March 1, 2013 at 11:19 am |
    • william bradford

      how bout figure it out yourself, and share what you learn. what happened to ask not what your country can do for you? be a wolf not a lamb

      March 1, 2013 at 11:55 am |
      • juan

        right in the bull eyes

        March 8, 2013 at 11:08 am |
  9. aubrie

    One comment above is not true. The natural smell of FRESH sea trout is awful. Especially the skin. It smells metallic.

    March 1, 2013 at 10:58 am |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

      I take it you fish near three-mile island

      March 1, 2013 at 12:04 pm |
  10. r

    You can ask them any or all of those questions and they could lie.

    March 1, 2013 at 9:49 am |
    • Dayton

      Believe me they do. I had a heated argument at a restaurant when they attempted to serve me drum versus grouper.

      I even explained I had a liscense to catch./sell nad it was NOT grouper. We left.
      A few weeks later the local news crew did a lot of DNA testing. It WAS drum. Other places were selling crap Asian catfish as grouper. I only buy whole fish from some closely trusted fish markets.

      March 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  11. black hoe

    guppies are foreer my favorite sashimi

    March 1, 2013 at 12:43 am |
  12. Michael

    If you ask if the tuna was previously frozen, if they say no they are breaking the law. Freezing the fish kills parasites. Obviously the author of this article is quite naive if he thinks the fresh sea fish he eats was never frozen.

    March 1, 2013 at 12:36 am |
    • al

      Cooking the fish also kills backteria. I frequently catch tuna and black sea bass while spear fishing, and with the exception of dropping it into a bucket of ice (which keeps the fish from spoiling from the time i bring it up to surface, until I get home) I don't freeze my fish. Also, some forms of bioorganisms don't die when frozen, they just become spores and when brought up to room temperature resume their pesky duties of making people sick. Cooking, however, does the trick of killing them :)

      March 1, 2013 at 10:42 am |
      • juan

        That is true for tuna from the purse seine fisheries in the pacific and atlantic that goes mostly to the cannery industry. Its not totally true for most of the longline fisheries for tuna and swordfish in the grand banks and Eastern US. It is preserved iced while at sea. Its unlikely to be frozen when exported to japan for the suchi market or when sold to the new england markets. The same is true for the offshore artisanal fisheries of Red snapper and grouper the Orinoco river delta the British Guiana and Surinam coast. These fish is mostly sold iced in the lesser antilles and in Venezuela.

        March 8, 2013 at 11:29 am |
    • Sean

      Fresh fish from Hawaii and certain other places does not require freezing. Cooking most fish all the way through is a waste. It's obvious from some of the comments here that people are misinformed. Unless your a trained Marine Biologist or something along those lines it is best to keep your wanna be " fishmonger" comments to yourself.

      March 1, 2013 at 11:00 am |
    • Paul

      This comment is beyond ignorant...if you think all fish has been frozen, go back to eating your hot dogs...I use the product from the author's company and it is far and away the most beautiful and UNFROZEN fish I have worked with in my 22 years as a chef...
      Don't try to sound smart when you know nothing of which you talk about...

      March 1, 2013 at 11:40 am |
    • HA25

      "On Ice" does not equal "Frozen". Sure, the ice is in / around the fish and it will get very cold on the boat and in transport. But not down to 0 where an actual freezer would get to.
      Also, I think the author is saying don't get fish that is Frozen AND used CO or Smoke.. It doesn't say don't eat previously frozen fish.

      March 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
    • juan

      What does waiting moderation means? IS my comment hurting somebody?

      March 8, 2013 at 11:34 am |
  13. Smokey

    Tilapia is actually an extremely healthy and ecologically responsible fish, it has a reputation as a "poor man's fish" but it has been sustainably raised for thousands of years, all the way back to ancient Egypt. Because they are short-lived, fast-growing and eat algae and vegetation, they are entirely free from the PCBs and heavy metals present in more sought-after and respected fish like wild salmon and tuna.

    March 1, 2013 at 12:30 am |
    • zandhcats

      Unfortunately, most of tilapia are farm raised. I once watched a documentary in PBS, and was horrified to see how the fisheries spread the antibiotic & hormone into the ponds, it's especially common practised in Asian. Just stop buying farm raised seafood.

      March 1, 2013 at 1:37 am |
    • Dave

      And they taste like dirt. Once you are accustomed to eating ocean fish, fresh water fish just tastes like dirt.

      March 1, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

        Yep, mud puppies. Water is not as fresh, ironic isn't it?

        Dave's not here.

        March 1, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
  14. Smokey

    Why would a restaurant serve sashimi-grade fish as anything other than sashimi? That would just be wasteful. I for one would be upset.

    March 1, 2013 at 12:25 am |
    • Shawn

      Because not everybody likes raw fish, yet want the high quality ingredient.

      March 1, 2013 at 12:49 am |
      • al

        There is no point in having sashimi grade fish on your plate if you plan on cooking it. Sashimi grade fish basically says "this fish is good enough to eat raw without making you sick". Cooking sashimi grade fish is like taking top end alcohol and throwing it into a mixer – total waste. The higher quality flavor is lost with the mix, same with cooking the fish. But hey, if you want to waste your money, it's your money

        March 1, 2013 at 10:46 am |
  15. Mona

    I can't remember the last time I've had real rare ahi tuna. Most places serve fake versions of it. Years ago before it was popular it was easy to get it with huge portions. I can remember exactly what it tastes like it. Over the years the portions got smaller and now tastes and looks different all together. I've pretty much given up on having great quality of ahi tuna ever again, sometimes we just have to let it go. The best quality is gone, too much overfishing and corruption.

    March 1, 2013 at 12:21 am |
    • Alex

      Fresh caught by yourself is the best way... I was lucky enough to go with my cousin last summer and we caught 3 mahi then went back and grilled them up that night.

      March 1, 2013 at 12:57 am |
  16. dave

    This fascist government only prosecutes people like those who sell good whole raw milk in spite of the fact that the sellers are telling the truth, the buyers buy knowingly and willingly, and it is even legal in the state they got arrested in. They do NOT prosecute liars and thieves especially the bankster types and those that poison and ruin our food and water supply.

    March 1, 2013 at 12:03 am |
  17. JJ

    The US vs foreign fish is idiotic as well. There are plenty of places in the world that do a better job than the US of handling fish. Documented fact.

    February 28, 2013 at 11:55 pm |
    • cja

      What do you expect the "expert" the interviewed is simply saying "buy my fish" and the "journalist" fell for it.

      March 1, 2013 at 1:41 am |
    • Chorizo Pig

      And there are plenty of places that do far worse, which is his point. I buy a LOT of fresh fish (I own a regional chain of restaurants) and his advice about buying U.S. caught fish is a good rule of thumb. The Japanese sources we use are very good, but the vendors that try to sell us fish from the rest of Asia are not nearly as reliable.

      March 1, 2013 at 1:49 am |
  18. John Smith

    This is all pretty good advice. I eat a lot of fish and make my own sashimi and sushi. A small error is the idea sashimi grade fish - that would be eaten raw - is likely to be served cooked. Sashimi fish is very expensive, and is only available in limited quantities, limited places. The supermarket is the place to ask whether fish is sashimi fresh and clean.

    And as far as restaurants that serve sashimi and sushi - you really shouldn't eat at cheap places, ever. It's ok to have grilled fish at cheap Japanese places. That fish is cheap (but safe) because even though it's one stage from being thrown out, it's throughly cooked.

    I strongly agree with questioning the origin of the fish. I've had issues with Trader Joe's where there were huge worms in their swordfish coming from SE Asia. The management's attitude is "So what? If you don't like it, return it." In fact, it was illegal for these stores to be selling fish that had gouges through the outer skin at all.

    Finally, a tip. As a stock of one species of well-known fish goes does, other types of fish becomes a better value. Catfish was considered a "poor man's fish" for years, but now is being carefully raised. And you'll find it's just as good or better than other flavors.

    February 28, 2013 at 11:27 pm |
    • Dave

      Worms in the swordfish are not because of the location where they were caught. I have bought, butchered and prepared fish for over 15 years during my first career as a chef. Lots of fish naturally has worms. Especially big, old fish that have lived long in the ocean (and bottom fish), parasites are just a part of the life cycle. I had gotten huge halibut from Alaska which usually comes frozen rock hard. You thaw it out, butcher it and when you grill it you can see the worms crawling out. Monchong, or pomfret (the fish in the photo accompanying the article) is full of worms. That doesn't mean YOU will get worms. The worms are part of a life cycle, they can survive inside their specific host but not necessarily other species. Salmon has parasites that go through a life cycle that includes parasitism in their bodies, the bears that eat them and in the ocean before it is complete. They wouldn't necessarily survive inside a human. Also it is not illegal to sell fish that has gouges. Cookie cutter sharks (google it) routinely attack all sorts of fish that eventually make it to market with gouges taken out of the skin. Swordfish, marlin, tuna, wahoo. Any pelagic fish could be a victim of this small shark and the sale of fish that have been hit is not prohibited.

      March 1, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants ♫♫

        Yep. You'll find the larger the halibut, the older it is, the more going on in the flesh.

        Also, Dave's not here.

        March 1, 2013 at 2:32 pm |
  19. DH

    This article is a bit idiotic. It conflates two very different problems: (1) mislabeled fish and (2) fresh fish.

    I don't want fresh tilapia that's mislabeled as snapper or flounder (two I've seen). It can be fresh or not–whatever, tilapia is never snapper or flounder!

    February 28, 2013 at 10:43 pm |
  20. dc

    H-Mart – Usually pretty fresh, and you get the whole fish, cut to your liking.

    February 28, 2013 at 10:33 pm |
  21. Charles Herzog

    I am experienced with fish markets. Tonight I saw halibut belly labeled "halibut cheeks" for $16.99/lb at the QFC in west Kirkland, WA. Bellies are the bottom of the barrel in halibut; often riddled with worms. On the positive side there were a couple of very small pieces of halibut fillet for $9.99/lb next to the large "cheeks". So businesses not only switch species but also mislabel fish. Tip: don't buy halibut steaks with two "tails" The flaps are the belly

    February 28, 2013 at 10:31 pm |
  22. Sb

    Stop eating.

    February 28, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  23. Nathan

    If it isn't, then it should be downright illegal to sell mislabeled food. It is fraud and may negatively affect people with allergies or religious aversions. The fraud rate in my city was 49%, 74% in sushi restaurants (where price is set by what you are expecting to be eating). If it is illegal, some people need to start getting prosecuted.

    February 28, 2013 at 10:18 pm |
  24. matt

    Macaroni Grill "Sea Bass" entree. Lol. "European Sea Bass" or Tilapia?!?!?!?!

    February 28, 2013 at 10:15 pm |
    • Dave

      The problem here is less one fish labeled as another and more Macaroni Grill labeling itself as a restaurant.

      March 1, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
  25. Hoffpauir

    Fiesta Food Markets, Houston, Texas. Avoid!

    February 28, 2013 at 10:11 pm |
    • Dave

      Houston Texas. Avoid! Actually Texas. Avoid!

      March 1, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
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