High School Students Bust Restaurants And Grocery Stores For Selling Mislabeled Fish

Two high school students decided to see if New Yorkers were really getting what they paid for when they ordered expensive fish. Guess what? Sometimes, they weren’t.

From the New York Times:

They hit 4 restaurants and 10 grocery stores in Manhattan. Once the samples were home, whether in doggie bags or shopping bags, they cut away a small piece and preserved it in alcohol. They sent those off to the University of Guelph in Ontario, where the Barcode of Life Database project began. A graduate student there, Eugene Wong, works on the Fish Barcode of Life (dubbed, inevitably, Fish-BOL) and agreed to do the genetic analysis. He compared the teenagers’ samples with the global library of 30,562 bar codes representing nearly 5,500 fish species. (Commercial labs will also perform the analysis for a fee.)

Three hundred dollars’ worth of meals later, the young researchers had their data back from Guelph: 2 of the 4 restaurants and 6 of the 10 grocery stores had sold mislabeled fish.

This isn’t really surprising, considering that the Chicago Sun-Times did essentially the same thing and found that none of their 14 samples of “red snapper” were actually “red snapper.”

One fish monger who passed the DNA test was glad that the kids (with the help of one of the girl’s father, who is a scientist) did the testing:

John Leonard, the owner [of Leonards’ Seafood and Prime Meats on Third Avenue], said he was not surprised to find that his products passed the bar code test. “We go down and pick the fish out ourselves,” he said. “We know what we’re doing.” As for the technology, Mr. Leonard said, “it’s good for the public,” since “it would probably keep restaurateurs and owners of markets more on their toes.”

Fish Tale Has DNA Hook: Students Find Bad Labels [NYT](Thanks, Jon!)


Edit Your Comment

  1. dry-roasted-peanuts says:

    Red Snapper… hmmm, very tasty. But I think I’m going to take what’s in the box.

  2. picardia says:

    The unanswered question — what was in the package, if not red snapper?

  3. Carso says:

    @dry-roasted-peanuts: For the love of God, where is that quote from? I hear it EVERYWHERE.

  4. giantnegro says:

    @picardia: Bigfoot meat.

  5. giantnegro says:

    @Carso: Weird Al’s “UHF”.

  6. ecwis says:

    @picardia: From the NY Times article:
    “Seven of nine samples that were called red snapper were mislabeled, and they turned out to be anything from Atlantic cod to Acadian redfish, an endangered species.”

  7. michaeldellario says:

    Trouser trout.

  8. AlexTheSane says:

    Red Snapper is people….PEOPLE!!!

  9. ChuckECheese says:

    @Carso: It’s also a quote from the old game show “Let’s Make a Deal.”

  10. Norcross says:

    @ChuckECheese: Not the red snapper part..

    STUPID! STUPID! STUPID! (also from the same scene in UHF)

  11. Illusio26 says:

    I love that movie.

    “You found the marble in the oatmeal, now you get to drink out of the fire hose!”

  12. Parapraxis says:


    the one-eyed variant, I suppose?

  13. mebaman says:

    Both local wing joints / “man havens” (Hooters and Wing House respectively) humorously cover their bases on this by referring to their fish offerings toungue-in-cheek as “Grouper’s Cousin” and “Grouper’s Teammate” respectively. That being said, I’ve had both (not being a big fan of chicken wings), and, whatever they are, they are not terribly bad substitutes for grouper (i.e. actually quite tasty for “bar & grill” fish offerings).

    BTW – Talipia, despite its humble origins, is a very tasty fish, but if you’re paying for Snapper, you should be getting Snapper (i.e. the Folger’s switch in this situation is WRONG).

  14. sir_pantsalot says:

    Do what I do and stick with fish sticks. 100% of the time that always turn out to be sticks made from some type of fish. They will never do you wrong.

  15. SinisterMatt says:

    Since Leonards’ Seafood and Prime Meats serves real red snapper, I guess that means they are off the hook, right?

    Bwahahaha! I’m here all week.


  16. BigFoot_Pete says:

    @dry-roasted-peanuts: Very nice reference… Who doesn’t love the Weird Al in-movie callout for the “wheel-of-fish?”

  17. It’s great that these places lie about what they are serving people. It’s not like folks with allergies ever eat at restaurants or anything.

  18. ironchef says:

    all taste like chicken. go figure.

  19. mewyn dyner says:

    I’ve heard a similar sting happened here in Chicago about a year ago. I don’t know, though, if anything happened to improve the situation.

  20. drftjgoj says:


    I guess this is what happens when you spin the Wheel of Fish.

  21. kingmanic says:

    @picardia: Soylent red.

  22. jswilson64 says:

    @mewyn dyner: Would that be the same sting mentioned in the OP? Or another Chicago fish-mislabling sting?

  23. digitalgimpus says:

    This isn’t surprising. Substituting fish for another fish is and old trick.

    My biggest concern isn’t so much that your eating a close relative of the fish… but where the fish was caught (if wild and not farmed). Simply because even if it’s caught in clean water, doesn’t mean it only swam in clean water. There’s a lot of pollution out there, and I don’t want my dinner swimming in it.

  24. Claystil says:

    this has been common knowledge for years. it’s readily admitted by food producers and retailers. heck, i even read something about in in (i think) New York Magazine a few years back. red snapper has been so over-fished on the east coast that it’s difficult to fish for profit so they use some other fish. some nearly identical in taste fish. what’s he big deal? you want red snapper? go to california.

  25. WaywardSoul says:

    @sir_pantsalot: I loved fish sticks when I was young. Delicious all white cod. Crunchy crumb coating. Yum! They don’t make those anymore – anywhere (that I can find). What they make these days are breading sticks. Lumps of sticky batter with a tiny sliver of mystery fish inside. Coatings that can’t be made crunchy even if you cook them five times the recommended time. Yuk! No thanks. No more fish sticks for me or mine.

  26. SadSam says:

    This is a huge problem in Florida and the Attorney General has started cracking down.

  27. jjeefff says:

    What was in the box?

  28. ludwigk says:

    @sir_pantsalot: I like fish sticks, too! They’re usually made of cod, halibut, or whitefish. I was kind of shocked to learn that there was a fish called “whitefish”. That species really got the naming shaft.

    Outside of fish sticks, my only other fish consumption is basically sashimi, or a chirashi bowl.

    This report is disheartening. Not only am I unknowledgeable in buying fresh fish, but I’m not likely to get what I think I’m buying!

  29. Alton told us to know our fish monger. Is Alton ever wrong?

  30. Claystil says:

    @SadSam: good for him! now maybe the physiologically identical brethren of the red snapper will become inedible under their proper names (who wants to eat yelloweye rockfish – EW) and the red snapper which takes as much as 20 years to reach sexual maturity will be further fished into oblivion for the sake of our dinner plates. good news for all!

    i’d bet in a double blind 99 out of 100 food snobs wouldn’t taste he difference between a red snapper and even the lowliest of rockfish.

  31. dry-roasted-peanuts says:

    @Carso: As others have said, it’s from UHF but spoofing game shows like Let’s Make a Deal.

  32. Marshfield says:

    There was a huge class action lawsuit a while back against Packard Bell for selling new computers with some used and refub parts. But at least you got a working computer that did what it was supposed to do.

    Now there’s restaurants claiming to sell you “expensive fish” and giving you “cheap fish” instead and nobody seems to care! “Yah, they do this all the time.” What? Are you kidding me? False adverising; fraud; pick something and go with it!

  33. Claystil says:

    @Marshfield: it’s only fraud or false advertising if the substitution is not mentioned anywhere on the package or menu and it almost always is. you simply have to look closely. and if you’re an educated consumer shopping for full price red snapper, you should be looking closely.

  34. DeeJayQueue says:

    @digitalgimpus: Then don’t eat Tilapia. They use those (and other carp species) to help clean the water at the sewage plant (no joke!) Then they sell the fish to the local market.

    I know this because I saw it on “Dirty Jobs” with Mike Rowe. He’d never lie to me.

  35. Necroscope says:

    @ludwigk: I was kind of shocked to learn that there was a fish called “whitefish”. That species really got the naming shaft.

    But not as badly as cod. (Yuk Yuk)

  36. SadSam says:


    I hear you. While I eat fish my Dad gave me a pocket guide from this organization [www.fishonline.org] that provides information on which fish to avoid due to overfishing. I’m not suggesting people should be eating red snapper, what I am suggesting is that diners shouldn’t be lied to. If my local sports bar is advertising a red snapper sandwich for $10 I already know its not red snapper based on the pricing. People shouldn’t eat certain fish because its over fished but supplies shouldn’t advertise or sell mislabeled fish either.

  37. howtragic says:

    Exactly why I only eat fish I fish myself, or that someone I know has fished. Always know what I’m getting, it’s super fresh, and it’s free!

  38. bohemian says:

    @DeeJayQueue: I heard someone on Chowhound call them toilet trout. After hearing the same story you heard I won’t eat Tilapia.

    I would really like to see some labeling regulations and stiff fines for lying about them. I want to know country of origin, wild or farm, species and if it was fresh or frozen then thawed back out.

  39. Craig says:

    “Sushi…I hate the stuff. Although, I tell you,
    I had some the other day. I took it home, I cooked it, it wasn’t bad. It tasted like fish.”

  40. pat_trick says:

    Hah, Eugene Wong is a friend of mine; he’s been swamped with interview requests all day. :)

  41. drjayphd says:



  42. GamblesAC2 says:

    @picardia: It’s new 100% vegan soy based fish substitue the great taste you’ve come to know and love from fish in an all vegan morssile that peta and even the most dissering fish lover can agree on! which raises the qusetion where does the taste come from?

  43. lidor7 says:

    Good for Leonards’ Seafood and Prime Meats! I’m a fairly frugal person, but once in a while I’ll splurge. When I order a $20-$30 meal I not only expect to get what I ordered, I expect it to be quality.

    The problem with today’s consumer products are that everyone is so focused on getting things cheaply that all they get are cheap items, which is expected. But I can’t say I blame the consumer because for every one company that sells quality products for a premium there are 9 other companies trying to scam you into buying a cheap product that only looks expensive.

  44. sonneillon says:

    I work as a fish wholesaler. We deal mostly with restaurants but we do a few retail establishments too.
    The fish business is surprisingly crooked. With the Russian mafia controlling the caviar trade and various fly by night operations selling foul product that has been color treated to look new.Having a competent chef is vary important when dealing with fish quality. Labeling is a constant problem in the fishing industry even with the COOL act. Domestic red snapper is the worst of the lot when it comes to company’s labeling poorly. Mainly because on a wholesale level the fish sells for 13.95-14.95 per pound fillet (regional price only), while tilapia is often sold at 6.95-7.95 per pound fillet. Other things that get sold as red snapper is red rock, corvina, lane snapper, ling snapper. (although ling is often not cheaper) It is so bad that the USDC stepped in and only 1 genus of fish can be sold as red snapper, 2 in California. The trick to buying red snapper is to only buy it skin on, preferably whole. If it is skin off fillet pass because it’s almost impossible to identify then. Selling tilapia as tuna is retarded those two fish do not even taste similar although if the fish is drenched in soy sauce and wasabi it is difficult to tell even the widest of gaps in fish taste.

    Also since this is going to come up at one point. Scallops that are marked sea scallops or processed scallops ARE NOT skate or shark. These scallops are treated with tripolyphosphate so they soak up water. Dry pack scallops are not treated so they are a better quality scallop. It is very difficult to cut skate in such a way on an industrial level to make it look like a scallop especially when the yield from it would cut into profit and most chefs can tell the difference.

    And while I’m at it:
    Amberjack is not mahi
    Ahi meens tuna or yellowfin tuna. Saying ahi tuna is silly
    Ono and wahoo are the same god damn fish just buy the cheaper wahoo
    Langostino is from a squat lobster which isn’t really a lobster but it still tastes good.

    lidor7: While you are blaming the consumer there are a lot of upscale places that charge you the premium and give you the mediocre. Knowing what you are buying is the most important point and if your ever in doubt buy the fish whole and fillet it yourself.

    bohemian: There are labeling regulations it is called the cool act the problem is that a Canadian fishmerman whose boat is registered out of panama catches swordfish off the coast of Africa and ports in Miami, where is that fish from?
    According the Cool act. Miami

    SadSam: Tilapia is a very efficient fish when it comes to biomass converted into edible body mass. A lot of third world countries just fill up lakes with the stuff. Since the stuff is like catfish and will eat anything it is cheap.

  45. seamer says:

    The problem is fish can’t speak. If it doesn’t moo, how can you trust where it came from?

  46. Quilt says:

    @sonneillon: You just blew my mind.

  47. chilled says:

    BTW,mahi mahi is dolphin…not the Flipper kind…its a fish.restaurants had to change the name so customers wouldn’t think they were eating Flipper!

  48. snowburnt says:

    @picardia: probably whitefish

  49. HogwartsAlum says:


    LOL!!! Thanks for the chuckle!

  50. HogwartsAlum says:


    I saw that too. God love Mike Rowe!

    It didn’t stop me from eating them. They are delicious.

  51. TACP says:

    The worst thing is when restaurants sell Chinese basa fish as catfish. They’re two totally different species. Real US farm raised catfish are raised in spring water ponds (no sewage!), and they don’t even bottom feed; they’re fed with floating feed.

    Mississippi and Louisiana actually banned basa fish after finding illegal chemicals in it, and thus began the Chinese Poison Train.

  52. sonneillon says:

    @TACP: Basa fish is a type of catfish, but Louisiana catfish is so cheap anyways there is no point in paying the shipping to import the fish from china.

  53. Green Goth Brit Chick - AlternatEve says:

    And this is why I’m glad I have a severe allergy to fish, and only buy my chicken and mince from the local butcher (gotta love him being a friend of the family. Cheap decent quality meat is just wonderful right now)

  54. Meathamper says:

    See, all those people that say “you’re too young” inevitably paid too much for too little.

  55. The Porkchop Express says:

    @jjeefff: nothing, absolutley nothing!!