The next time you order tilapia, make sure it’s actually tilapia and not its fish doppelganger. It turns out that chefs can’t tell the difference between fish that look alike. If they can’t tell them apart, do we as consumers really know which fish we’re getting? Chances are, we don’t. It’s called seafood mislabeling, and it happens quite often. To prove how easy it is to mislabel fish, a conservation group called Oceana hosted a dinner where guests were asked to identify different types of fish, according to NPR.
Guests at the dinner were first asked to identify the fillets of salmon, red snapper, and halibut placed next to their doppelgangers. Chef Xavier Deshayes of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, who had prepared the meal that the guests would soon eat, admitted that he couldn’t tell the raw wild salmon fillet from the raw farm-raised salmon fillet.
"It's nearly impossible for anyone — even experts — to tell the difference between many species of fish," says Beth Lowell, Oceana's campaign director.
In February, Oceana led a study that found that 33 percent of seafood they sampled at retail outlets in 21 states was mislabeled.
After the raw fish guessing game, the guests were served three courses of raw fish pairings — wild salmon and domestic salmon, grouper and weakfish, and tilapia and red snapper — that were prepared and cut the same and were asked to guess again. From the three pairings, they were asked to correctly identify wild salmon, red snapper, and tilapia.
The first cooked fillet to be identified was the grouper. Lowell says that grouper is a “virtually indistinguishable” from its lookalike, according to NPR. In the study from February, 11 of the 44 samples of grouper were mislabeled in retail outlets.
As for salmon, farm-raised has thicker layers of fat, giving it a moister and more buttery mouth feel. Wild salmon’s firmer and fishier taste helped guests to correctly identify it.
Finally, guests had to distinguish the tilapia from the red snapper. According to the February study, red snapper is the most commonly mislabeled fish. Only seven of the 120 samples purchased from retail outlets were actually red snapper.
Oceana says it's hard to tell who’s to blame for the mislabeling. It could happen anytime from the moment the fish is caught to when it’s distributed to retail outlets or prepared in restaurants.
Since most of us aren’t experts at distinguishing between types of fish, all we can do is hope that whoever is catching, labeling, and preparing it for us can.