How To Tell If Your Tuna Is Real Or Fake

Oceana has reported rampant mislabeling of fish. Here's how to know what you're getting.
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A recent investigation by Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation group, found that of 449 fish from more than 250 restaurants, seafood markets and grocery stores across the country, 21 percent of samples were mislabeled.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. Oceana had previously published another staggering report in 2013 that brought to light the insanely rampant practice of mislabeling fish. Oceana reported that after red snapper, one of the most mislabeled fish on the market is fresh tuna, and the practice is still going strong today.

President Obama introduced a rule back in 2016 that aims to curb this fraud by requiring 25 percent of imported seafood to be traced back to the boat on which it was caught. But that doesn’t mean you won’t be duped at a local grocery store, buying tuna that is clearly not real tuna.

The Oceana report focused on fresh tuna, the kind you can order at sushi places, seafood restaurants and grocery stores. Pre-cooked canned or packaged tuna was not a part of this Oceana report, though it comes with its own host of sustainability and transparency issues.

On a recent family vacation in upstate New York, my family bought fresh “tuna” at the seafood section of the grocery store, and in our vacation-euphoric state we simply marveled at the good price. We trusted the label to be honest, only to quickly realize our mistake. The fish we actually got was most likely escolar, which isn’t even closely related to tuna.

During Oceana’s research, they found that 84 percent of the “white tuna” samples they tested in the U.S. were actually escolar. First of all, the name “white tuna” is cause for alarm, since “white tuna” isn’t actually a type of fish ― Albacore is the name used to describe the lightest color of tuna. (Bluefin and Yellowfin, or Ahi, are the names of the darker tunas we typically eat.)

This mislabeling of fish happened most often at sushi restaurants, at a staggering 74 percent of the sushi venues they sampled. But it also occurred at the grocery store 18 percent of the time.

The real problem with fake tuna.

The problem with escolar is more serious than just getting something you didn’t ask for. This fish can make you physically ill.

It has been banned in Japan since 1977 because the Japanese government believes that it’s toxic. And the FDA put out a bulletin back in the ’90s recommending against selling the fish (but it has since removed the bulletin).

While escolar does taste good thanks to its fatty quality, that fatty substance is a result of a high content of wax esters, and humans can’t digest it. If you consume too much escolar, more than six ounces, it can cause diarrhea or anal leakage. That’s why some people refer to it as the ex-lax fish.

So, how do you make sure fake tuna doesn’t happen to you?

Price is a big indicator.

Oceana says that if the price feels too good to be true, you can bet that it actually is. In other words, if you want tuna, you should expect to shell out some serious cash.

If you see $12 a pound tuna, that’s a red flag,” Dave Seigal, chef at the Lobster Place in New York City, told HuffPost. “It’s normally a fish that people can be charging 25-35 dollars a pound.”

And if you want to save some money, remember that you’ll probably be paying for it later in another way.

Color is another giveaway.

Price isn’t always an indication, so be sure to look at the color. “Escolar is a milky-white looking fish. There is no tuna that swims that looks like that,” explained Seigal. “There’s also a level of opaqueness with tuna that you don’t have with escolar,” he elaborated.

Consider the traceability.

Ask your fish monger where the fish came from, and if it was previously frozen. If your fish monger hesitates to answer either question, walk away. Knowing where your fish comes from is crucial in being sure you’re getting what you want.

And remember, previously frozen is not a bad thing. Tuna is usually previously frozen because it’s common practice for fishermen to freeze it when out at sea. “People shouldn’t be afraid of frozen fish. It’s actually required by law in New York City for sushi grade fish,” says Seigal.

“Sourcing and traceability is really of the utmost importance,” says Seigal. “That’s really the best way you can avoid a situation like this.”

If your local supermarket or the one you’re frequenting on vacation can’t answer your questions, considering forgoing it entirely and ordering seafood from a reputable source online. The Lobster Place offers this service, as do other retailers like Sea To Table who are committed to seafood transparency.

It might cost you upfront, but it’ll be worth it to avoid a fish fakeout ― and any escolar side-effects.

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