Customers love ordering good fish when they go out to eat. Species with powerful name recognition like orange roughy, grouper, and salmon are great sellers on the menu and can be found in restaurants across the country. But are consumers getting exactly what they pay for? Some fish species, especially those with a light white meat, can be interchanged fairly easily without the knowledge of the customer.
It’s an age-old trick in the food service industry, and a recent undercover report by local television stations in four cities found that mislabeling fish species may be more prevalent than anyone imagined. The practice has been dubbed “fish fraud,” and it has been an ongoing problem. A study from the ‘90s revealed that 37% of fish served in restaurants was mislabeled. And many industry experts believe the rate has gone up since then.
The most recent spate of reports about fish fraud were conducted by Scripps television stations in Kansas City, Phoenix, Baltimore, and Tampa. The most common mislabeling involves farm raised tilapia and catfish sold as grouper or orange roughy and farm raised salmon sold as wild caught salmon. Naturally, the farm raised species cost a restaurant pennies on the dollar compared to coveted wild species. The restaurants in these four cities were busted after undercover reporters conducted DNA tests on samples of the fish they were served.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is supposed to regulate fish served in restaurants. Enforcement of fish fraud violations have been described as lax at best. Of course, the embarrassment of being caught on local TV is a powerful reprimand for any restaurant, but the opposite draw of making huge margins by charging $20 or more for a fish entrée that costs $2 – $3 a pound makes even the risk of getting caught seem small.
From a pure business point of view, the short term gains that come from making a high margin through mislabeled fish entrees is more than offset by the risk to your restaurant’s reputation. As I have been emphasizing on this blog for the last few months, and what has been emphasized in the restaurant industry in general, is that customer loyalty is what gets restaurants through tough economic times. And fish fraud doesn’t tend to build loyalty. Sometimes it’s much better to take the long view when it comes to the reputation of your establishment.