NEEDED: More Cranky Consumers

Article excerpt

Too often in North America, we're not eating what we think we are

A couple of years back, one of Winnipeg's higher-end sushi joints took the unusual step of placing "bluefin tuna" on its menu, apparently oblivious of the controversy surrounding the top-of-the-foodchain ocean predator.

The bluefin, the largest and most impressive member of the tuna family, is in danger of extinction due to worldwide overfishing. The Atlantic bluefin, which ranges from North America to the Mediterranean, is officially endangered, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The southern bluefin, which inhabits Australian waters, is critically endangered and may disappear before the decade is out. Only the Pacific bluefin is not classified as threatened, though fishing fleets are doing their best to remove as many from the ocean as possible to serve markets in Japan, the U.S. and elsewhere.

From an ecological standpoint, choosing to serve bluefin sashimi is equivalent to offering up mountain gorilla sandwiches or polar-bear burgers: All three are endangered apex predators. But since fish are neither cute nor cuddly, the snob appeal of offering up something as rare and expensive as bluefin maguro wins out over environmental concerns.

In a capacity as a cranky consumer -- as opposed to merely being a cranky reporter -- I asked the owner of the Winnipeg restaurant why he was selling bluefin. His response was surprising: It wasn't actually bluefin, which he could not afford to purchase or sell, but an entirely different species of fish.

The tuna in question was bigeye, which is just as tasty, almost as threatened ("vulnerable," according to the IUCN) and all but indistinguishable from bluefin to anyone who isn't a seafood expert. This means the Winnipeg sushi joint was committing less of an environmental sin, while breaking an entirely different rule pertaining to ethics of food preparation and consumption.

In many jurisdictions, including the United States, it's illegal to sell one species under the name of another. But the practice is extremely common, especially when it comes to fish.

Back in 2004, Minneapolis TV station KARE 11 used DNA analysis to demonstrate some Minnesota and Wisconsin restaurants that listed "Canadian walleye" on their menus were serving European zander in place of the fish commonly known as pickerel north of the border. Zander, or pike-perch, occupies roughly the same ecological niche in European freshwater lakes and rivers as walleye do in North America. Zander are also just as nutritious as walleye and are nowhere near endangered, just like the North American fish.

But at a fraction of the price of pickerel, pike-perch is a big ripoff at "Canadian walleye" prices, not to mention an upsetting revelation to Minnesotans who consider walleye the only freshwater fish worth eating.

Since then, more media outlets, consumer watchdogs and environmental organizations have used DNA analysis to demonstrate the widespread practice of selling one fish in place of another in the United States and Canada, which lag behind the European Union when it comes the labelling of fish and seafood.

In Europe, it's common for fishmongers, grocers and even restaurants to list where a given fish was caught, how it was caught and clearly identify the species in question. In E.U. countries, the labelling flows from regulations designed to encourage sustainable fishing practices and discourage the consumption of fish and seafood whose stocks are threatened. But pretty much everywhere in Europe, consumers have always been more discerning about what they put in their mouths. …