Adventures In Fictional Fish: There's No Such Thing As White Ruffy

If the recent exposé on falsely labeled fish by our lab coat-wearing kin at Consumer Reports has you approaching fish buying with a critical eye, you’re not alone.

After reading the article, which reported that 22 percent of fish tested was incorrectly or incompletely labeled or misidentified by employees, one subscriber contacted us regarding some fish he spotted at a Trader Joe’s market, the packaging of which he found misleading.

The package, boldly labeled ‘White Ruffy,’ might lead a quickly glancing consumer to believe that the fish inside is “white roughy.” Or perhaps the bright orange bag, coupled with the large label, would have customers think they’re buying orange roughy, a highly valued and popular whitefish.

Neither, it turns out, is true. White Ruffy is actually the brand name of the fish, packaged by the White Ruffy company in Watsonville, Calif. The fish inside the package is striped pangasius, a species of the catfish family Pangasiidae often raised on fish farms in Vietnam.

Consumer Reports readers know that, unfortunately, there’s nothing unusual about this kind of deceptive marketing – but there’s more to this fishy story. Back in 2009 the FDA noticed a trend cropping up of restaurants and retailers falsely selling fish from the Pangasiidae family as ‘white roughy’ or ‘white ruffy’– a fish, they noted, that is “fictitious.”

The agency issued a letter cracking down on this bait-and-switch, stating: “Fish that are classified as ‘roughies’ such as the “orange roughy” are in the Trachichthyidae family, and this fish commands a higher value in the marketplace.” Referring to any fish in the Pangasidae family as “white roughy or ruffy,” they said, would be “misleading to the consumer.”

Very sneaky move, then, by the White Ruffy company, which we believe is skirting the issue by selling pangasius fish not as ‘white ruffy’ per se – but as the White Ruffy brand (and if you look on the packaging beneath the large White Ruffy label, you’ll see the word ‘brand’ in smaller lettering). Against the rules? It seems to us that it’s technically not. But it clearly has the potential to confuse consumers.

So when you’re buying fish, read labels closely and don’t be afraid to ask your fishmonger questions before you buy it hook, line and sinker.

For more information, go to BuySafeEatWell.org.

Meg Bohne, Consumers Union