This Is How Many Restaurants Are Serving “Fraudulent Fish”

Something smell fishy? It may be because that salmon you just ordered isn't really salmon.

Raw fresh Seafood Cocktail close up with Mussels, Clams, Vongole, Prawns and ShrimpsLisovskaya Natalia/Shutterstock

The next time you’re out to dinner at your favorite restaurant, you may want to hold the sushi—and the salmon and maybe even the shellfish. A new report from Oceana suggests that seafood mislabeling is widespread across the United States.

According to National Geographic, Oceana senior scientist Kimberly Warner and her team took 449 samples from restaurants, fish markets, and grocery stores and found that, overall, 20 percent of them were mislabeled.

Warner tells Reader’s Digest that she and her team took 227 samples total from 150 restaurants and found that 50 of the restaurants (33 percent) served mislabeled fish. Of all 227 restaurant samples, 26 percent (58 samples) were mislabeled.

More unpleasant food for thought: Warner’s team didn’t see a difference in results between fast casual and more upscale places. In other words, it doesn’t matter how much cash you drop on that expensive filet of fish; you still may not be getting what you paid for.

Past studies show this kind of seafood “fraud” is common in restaurants. In 2017, California restaurant Odeum was busted serving cheap tilapia to customers who had ordered petrale sole, a more expensive cut, NBC Bay Area reports. In a 2013 report, Oceana found that 33 percent of 1,250 seafood samples were mislabeled. That same report found that every sushi restaurant tested in Austin, Chicago, Washington D.C., and New York City sold some kind of mislabeled fish. In 2017, the Washington State attorney general found that two sushi restaurants were passing off escolar—which has a high oil content and is notorious for causing diarrhea – as white tuna (that’s not safe either—more on that below). One of the restaurants was also passing tilapia off as Thai red snapper. Even if a seafood menu doesn’t look fishy, you should also keep an eye out for these other signs you’re about to eat at a bad restaurant.

According to Warner, the fish most commonly mislabeled in the 2019 study was sea bass, with a whopping 67 percent of the samples actually being something else (most commonly, giant perch or Nile tilapia). The study also found that 64 percent of the snapper samples tested were actually lavender jobfish, and 31 percent of the Pacific halibut samples Oceana tested were actually Atlantic halibut—which is endangered, thanks to overfishing.

If this has you backing away from the sushi buffet, we don’t blame you. However, there are a few key steps you can take to minimize your chances of becoming a victim of seafood fraud—and make sure you’re really getting what you order.

  1. Ask questions. If you see “catch of the day” on the menu, your server should be able to give you details, such as where it came from, whether it was wild-caught or farmed, and what species it is, Warner says.

  2. Order scallops. Of all the samples Warner and her team tested, scallops were the least likely to be mislabeled.

  3. See “white tuna” on the menu at your favorite sushi joint? It’s not a real thing. “Legally, there is no such species as white tuna, which seems to have been manufactured by the sushi industry,” Larry Olmsted, author of Real Food, Fake Food: Why You Don’t Know What You’re Eating and What You Can Do About It, wrote in an article for Forbes. His advice? Take it as the red flag that it is, and avoid it. He also recommends steering clear of anything chopped (such as spicy tuna rolls) and instead opting for nigiri style, where you can see at least part of the fish. You’ll also want to avoid these 8 types of fish you should never order at a restaurant.