Researchers help combat US sushi mislabeling

Published on
November 13, 2018

Soon after a study showed rampant mislabeling of sushi in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.-based restaurants last year, the Loyola Marymount University-UCLA researchers behind the data set out to be a part of the solution.

Once they discovered seafood mislabeling rates of around 47 percent in 2017, the Loyola Marymount University-UCLA authors of the study worked in collaboration with restaurants, nonprofit groups, and regulatory agencies to form the Los Angeles Seafood Monitoring Project to pinpoint the causes of seafood mislabeling and identify solutions. 

"After the wave of media attention about our study, what we saw were various stakeholders choosing to come to the table and work as partners," said Demian Willette, assistant professor of biology in LMU's Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering, and lead author of a new article published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, in a statement from LMU. “With their help, we've made strides in identifying where to focus our efforts so that we can work constructively and proactively to reduce seafood fraud.”

The researchers have been purchasing small pieces of sushi monthly from 10 restaurants and analyzing the DNA since soon after their original report was published.

They found that, while sushi mislabeling is pervasive, intentional fraud is much less common, said Paul Barber, a UCLA professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and senior author of the article, in the statement. 

“If we can solve the mislabeling issues, then we can focus on the intentional fraud,” Barber said.

The collaborative project began after Jerry A. Greenberg, CEO of Sushi Nozawa Group, reached out to the authors following the publication of the original mislabeling study. The "rinse and repeat" cycle of press coverage following the release of DNA seafood surveys was not going to change the underlying issues, Greenberg said.

"Whether at Sugarfish, KazuNori, or Nozawa Bar, starting off each day with the absolute top-quality fish is the most important thing we do. A component of quality is transparency and accuracy in labeling," Greenberg said. "We are proud to be part of the L.A. Seafood Monitoring Project and we look forward to a significant reduction in labeling issues as a result of the effort.”

The Los Angeles Seafood Monitoring Project proposes a two-tiered approach to eliminating mislabeling. First, ambiguity in labeling that results from U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s limitations – such as the confusion caused by the label “amberjack” - must be clarified, according to the researchers.

“This is the only acceptable name for five of the six seriola species on the FDA's seafood list, despite variation in both price and taste, and also that these species are traditionally sold under separate names in Japan,” the authors wrote.

"Requiring vendors to adhere to the single legal name 'amberjack' denies biological reality and Japanese culture, and constrains consumers' ability to make informed choices," they added.

The Monitoring Project also continues to conduct blind sampling in restaurants and using DNA barcoding to monitor the fish that wholesalers sell to restaurants. 

“Results will be shared with Seafood Monitoring Project stakeholders and the public, and also communicated privately to restaurant owners – a step that's meant to be proactive and constructive, rather than responsive and punitive,” LMU said.

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