Your Red Snapper Sushi Is Likely Fake

Do you like to order delicious red snapper sushi? Joke’s on you, it’s probably fake. The Chicago Sun-Times had, literally, nothing to do, so it ordered 14 pieces of “red snapper” sushi and then had DNA tests done on this fish. Guess what? None of it was red snapper.

None. Zero. Not red snapper. From the Sun-Times:

In most cases, the red-tinged flesh draped across the small mound of rice was tilapia — a cheap substitute. Nine of the 14 samples were tilapia. Four were red sea bream — nearly as pricey but still not red snapper.

“It’s misbranding, and it’s fraud,” said Spring Randolph of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which oversees labeling of seafood.

The Sun-Times asserts that because there are very few sushi fish suppliers in the US (and the restaurants blame the suppliers for sending tilapia when they order snapper), the problem is probably not localized to Chicago. —MEGHANN MARCO

Fish fraud: The menus said snapper, but it wasn’t! [Sun-Times] (Thanks, David!)
(Photo: Al Podgorski/Sun-Times)


Edit Your Comment

  1. B says:

    It’s not localized to sushi dealers either. Lots of fish places will sell you tilapia or other cheap fish when something more expensive is listed on the menu.

  2. Landru says:

    Also, a vaguely related story about the American sushi industry, from the Chicago Tribune:

    Sushi and Rev. Moon
    How Americans’ growing appetite for sushi is helping to support his controversial church

    “Adhering to a plan Moon spelled out more than three decades ago in a series of sermons, members of his movement managed to integrate virtually every facet of the highly competitive seafood industry. The Moon followers’ seafood operation is driven by a commercial powerhouse, known as True World Group. It builds fleets of boats, runs dozens of distribution centers and, each day, supplies most of the nation’s estimated 9,000 sushi restaurants.”

  3. MentalDisconnect says:

    Red snapper or cheap substitute, I’m still allergic to it.

  4. Pasketti says:

    The problem is that there is no truth in labeling law for menus. So you can order scallops and get skate, or order king crab and get “krab”.

  5. rrapynot says:

    The whole sushi thing is marketing BS. When I was in Japan I noticed hardly any sushi places.

  6. Mojosan says:


    When I was in Japan I ate a different sushi restaurant every night.

  7. enm4r says:


    Eh? Agreed with above. I lived there for 4 years and sushi can be found everywhere. It might not be the typical Americanized sushi place, but guess what, it’s Japan.

  8. Falconfire says:

    @rrapynot: they are all over the place, they just dont advertise like they do in the US since its common finger food (rice balls are another snack as well that is big here, but a typical lunch dish there and no one thinks twice of ordering it at anyplace they go to)

    Its a problem with the fish industry in general though, not just sushi. Its extremely typical for “Red Snapper” to be another fish, since the real one is really expensive and not that common.

    Also snapper it’s self, is a common name, many fish are called “snappers” that genetically are not of that family. Down in the rivers along the South Jersey shore, we called baby Bluefish snappers. They arnt, just was the common name for them mostly cause they had nasty ass teeth that could go through gloves if you didnt grip them right.

  9. timmus says:

    All the restaurants need to do is put tiny quotation marks around these nouns. Thanks to the overuse of quotation marks for emphasis, nobody will be the wiser.

  10. othium says:

    Here in Minnesota we had a similar controversy over restaurants that had Walleye on the menu or in the supermarket and it turned out to be a cheap substitute. That kicked up quite a fuss as we take our fish pretty seriously up here.

  11. ogman says:

    Landru – Thanks for posting that. Everyone else should read that story and become a little more informed about the “Moonie” influence in this country. This is the same Rev. Moon who owns UPI and The Washington Times and had several later embarrassed members of Congress attend his coronation as *Savior, Messiah, Returning Lord and True Parent of Humanity.


  12. slapstick says:

    Our area

  13. slapstick says:

    Ugh, how did that get submitted? Our area is going through a similar problem with “fake grouper”. Randomly tested restaurants showed quite a few using a different kind of fish and passing it off as grouper.

    The lame thing is, I went to one of the restaurants later found to have fake grouper, ordered a grouper sandwich, and had a bad reaction to it – to my knowledge, I’m not allergic to anything, so it was very strange. Now it’s possible I’m allergic to some random fish and I might never know what it was!

  14. iMike says:


    Not “vaguely related” at all.

  15. SadSam says:

    This happens all the time in Fla. with grouper and the local papers run a story about 1 a year on this topic.

    It is fraud and false advertising, etc. Sadly the Fla. AG never does much about it.

  16. thrillhouse says:

    “The Chicago Sun-Times had, literally, nothing to do…”

    I love this line. Thank you for that.

    As for the fish, unless it swims locally, it won’t be on my plate. I know that doesn’t ensure that my blackened red snapper won’t be tilapia, but I’d like to think my odds are a bit better than average. Still, sea food in the Midwest? Rarely.

    You’d like to think you’d be able to tell the difference, but I have a feeling that this is much easier to pass off than say sirloin in place of filet mignon.

  17. wobudong says:

    Stick to squid and octopus and eel.
    Also, it ain’t gonna be tilapia if you order Kobi beef. Of course, it might not be Kobi beef, either, but be kind. They lost the war.

  18. Dacker says:

    There have also been reports for many years around counterfeit scallops. Something like half of the scallops sold — and more than half of the really large ones — are actually pieces of skate wings cut with a cookie-cutter-like device to make scallop-shaped pieces.

    I distinctly remember hearing one discussion of this practice on a NPR show a couple years ago. Fish market workers started calling into the show and confirmed the story. I paid particular note of this being a common practice at Pike Market in Seattle.

    Where are the ethics? So sad….

  19. esquilax says:

    i’m kinda glad it’s not Red Snapper. Tilapia’s not overfished like Red Snapper, can be farmed pretty easily and in conjunction with rice farming, and can be fed vegetarian feed, so there’s less bioaccumulation of toxic chemicals in Tilapia flesh.

    if people can’t tell the difference when it’s served to them, who cares. it’s not like the crab in most sushi is real, either.

  20. IC18 says:

    I grew up near the NE coast with a heavy seafood diet. I can easly distinguish between Red Snapper and Tilapia or other cheap fish. So if any resturant tried to pull a fast one on me I will threaten to sue the pants off them so they or their suppliers start getting their act together.

  21. MonkeySwitch says:

    I used to work at the Fish Market Restaurant in Calera, AL and we sold “snapper” on the menu, but it would come in packages marked as tilapia. They would also sell amberjack and mahi mahi at different prices despite the fact that it was the same fish, they would just cut it differently and cook it with different seasonings.

  22. TVarmy says:

    While we are all hating on the restaurants for fraud, which is a very bad thing, I implore everyone not to let this impact your view on tilapia. It’s a cheap and environmentally friendly fish (It takes 60% less feed to grow a pound of tilapia than a pound of beef) which can be very good cooked properly. As for sushi, I’ve never tried it that way knowingly (I eat salmon sushi, which I hope is hard to fake.)

  23. mac-phisto says:

    this is news? fluke & flounder have become interchangeable as terms anymore. all types of whitefish have been sold under the bulk name cod & scrod for over a hundred years.

    the only one that gets me is when a lobster is sold as a maine lobster & it most obviously is not. i’ve had verbal confrontation over this before. don’t get between a downeaster & his lobstah.

  24. informer says:

    This isn’t really surprising, considering a huge number of “sushi” restaurants on the US mainland are actually run by Korean or Chinese immigrants who have no sushi-making training at all. The Japanese government considers it to be a large enough problem that they are developing a certification program for overseas restaurants purporting to sell genuine Japanese cuisine.

    And talapia… it may be environmentally friendly, but you’ll never see anyone but homeless people eating talapia in Hawaii. That thing is the rat of the sea. Gross.

  25. rhombopteryx says:

    “The problem is that there is no truth in labeling law for menus.”

    Except for in the US – The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act prohibits ” misbranding of any food, drug, device, or cosmetic.”
    Almost every state has a similar consumer protection act provision similarly prohibiting misleading or fraudulent misrepresentations. Now enforcingthose laws is apparently another matter…

  26. spinch says:

    Ahhh, a red snapper. Mmmmm, very tasty. Okay, Weaver, listen carefully. You can hold on to your red snapper… or you can go for what’s in the box that Hiro-San is bringing down the aisle right now! What’s it gonna be?

  27. FishingCrue says:

    Seafood in the Midwest? Really? You’d eat perhaps the easiest spoiling food, hundreds of miles from the ocean? Really? Really?

  28. tph says:

    @FishingCrue: you know that there are these things called “lakes” right? And sometimes, said lakes are inhabited by these swimming creatures that are called “fish”, right?

  29. SNLT203 says:


    I don’t know any general seafood restaurants in Alabama or NW Florida that don’t use the same fish for AJ and mahi mahi. But at least they cut them differently ;)

    My rule of thumb is that if you aren’t pay $25+ per plate odds are you are eating something out of Brazil or Vietnam. Gulf fish is very pricy.

  30. jgodsey says:

    i remember when Tilapia was gonna save the third world from starting to death? it can be farmed, it replicates like crazy on cheap feed. it was introduced in the market as a ‘CHEAP’ fish. now it’s marketed at damn near the same price as Haddock. now THAT’s a crime.

  31. Kellette says:

    Stop picking on the Midwestern fish eater – Walleye is a freshwater fish, “native to most of Canada and to the northern United States” according to Wikipedia.

    “othium says: Here in Minnesota we had a similar controversy over restaurants that had Walleye on the menu or in the supermarket and it turned out to be a cheap substitute. That kicked up quite a fuss as we take our fish pretty seriously up here.”

  32. jurgis says:

    @spinch: I’ll take what Hiro has in the box!

  33. ElizabethD says:

    Yeah, tilapia rocks… even our kids love it. But I agree about the prices. Sheesh. We’re not talking lobster here! 8-/

  34. helen says:

    how to avoid faux fish, and save piles and piles of money in the process:

    go to a reputable fish store. buy a whole fish of the species you would like. ask the fishmonger to gut, scale, and debone it, and to pack it on ice. bring it home. cut it into small pieces. consume.

  35. The_Shadow says:

    That’s not a real Red Snapper in the picture either [just a fish commonly sold as Red Snapper]. Besides the red skin/scale coloring true Red Snapper also have red eyes.

  36. Nytmare says:

    If they’re going to go out of their way to falsely advertise it as red snapper, then obviously their customers do care whether or not it’s really red snapper.

  37. pestie says:

    Am I the only one who saw this and thought, “WHEEL! OF! FISH!” or what?

  38. cz1 says:

    I work in a wholesale seafood facility in the midwest. First we are much too busy to take a cookie cutter and “make” scallops from skate, although others might do that from time to time. We would never sell tilapia as snapper either. Mahi-mahi and amberjack are two seperate species, though they are similer. One more thing is that it only take 4 hours to air-freight fish from the coast to our plant and we have a thing called ice that keeps our fish fresh. About “maine” lobsters however, most of those are from canada. Once the fish leaves our facility we have no way of knowing what our restaurants are going to call their fish.

  39. klinux says:


    That’s a real red snapper. Search (Google, Yahoo, etc) for ‘Lutjanus campechanus’.

  40. jurgis says:

    @cz1: It’s crazy how people always claim that you can’t have fresh seafood unless you live in Maine/Maryland/Seattle… it is the 21st century. I read an article about how “fresh” fish, even in Omaha isn’t more than a few hours older than the same stuff you’d get at a market in Boston… that’s not true, of course, for things like King Crab or Salmon (but no one really gets that stuff “fresh).

    I suspect that the fakers are the restaurants themselves, not the distributors.

  41. sonneillon says:

    I work as in the fish wholesaler business. Skate being used as scallops is an urban legend. The difference between skate and scallops is extreme. The only thing thats similar is the look, but the texture and taste is very different. A chef would know the difference and most people who have had scallops would be able to taste it. Skate is garbage meat. Also it is very difficult to “punch” a whole in a skate wing. Skates are very leathery and the “wings” are mostly muscle and tendons (think stingray) and is rather difficult to go through it without a knife.

    Now because of the nature of seafood whitefish is often subbed for whitefish do to the availability of some fish. Although where I work if we are out of red snapper we usually send them lane snapper or silky snapper as opposed to tilapia, but such subs are done in full disclosure and retailers and restaurants just choose to ignore it. Also consider that every seafood plant is supposed to have a USDC inspector and so replaceing one fish with another is difficult especially since his job is not bound by the boss of the processing plant.

  42. Falconfire says:

    @The_Shadow: No that actually is a red snapper, it does have red eyes.

    Mangroves which is what is commonly sold have a dark stripe by the eye.

  43. Jesse in Japan says:

    It’s all just fish to me.