Restaurants misleading diners by serving cheaper types of fish, study finds

Study conducted by Oceana

DENVER - Next time you order fish at your favorite Denver restaurant, you might want to look twice at what you’re eating.

A new study by Oceana, an organization aimed at ocean conservation, found some Denver area restaurants misleading customers when it comes to fish on the menu.

The study was done from 2010 to 2012 collecting more than 1,200 seafood samples from 674 retail outlets in 21 states to determine if they were honestly labeled.

The DNA testing, according to Oceana, found mislabeling on some of the 42 samples fish samples from restaurants, grocery stores and sushi eateries in the Denver area.

The small sample found no Denver area grocery stores mislabeling fish, but more than half of the samples at restaurants and sushi eateries were mislabeled according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) guidelines, according to Oceana. 

The report found 7 out of 12 fish samples mislabeled at restaurants and 8 out of 15 fish samples mislabeled at sushi eateries in the Denver area. The organization didn’t identify which Denver restaurants or sushi eateries mislabeled the fish. 7NEWS requested the names of the restaurants, but Oceana has not returned our call or email.

The biggest offender was red snapper; the study said “Like most other cities, snapper was a frequently swapped fish in Denver. Tilapia, flounder and less desirable snappers were mislabeled as other species of snapper in Denver restaurants and sushi venues.”

Oceana also found grouper, tuna and halibut also mislabeled. The group found one restaurant, not named in the study, sold Asian catfish as grouper.

7NEWS contacted the Colorado Restaurant Association, a trade group representing Colorado restaurants, to get its reaction to the study. The CEO Pete Meersman said, "It's difficult to tell from the study how widespread the problem is in Denver."

He questioned whether the restaurants are misleading consumers or of if the supplier mislead the restaurant.

When asked if a chef should be able to tell the difference between grouper and Asian catfish, Meersman said even the study had to rely on DNA testing, showing how difficult it can be to distinguish different varieties of fish that could look alike.

Meersman also his organization encourages restaurants to use the proper names for all products.

Oceana said Denver tied with Houston/Austin and San Francisco for the highest rates of restaurant mislabeling in the country.


A spokesperson with Oceana tells 7NEWS they will not release the restaurant list because they can’t definitively say if the mislabeling occurred in the restaurant itself, at a distributor or someone where else.

Report authors told 7NEWS some of the mislabeling may be due to deliberate fraud or confusion at the restaurant, since there are so many different varieties of fish.

"Let's drum out those people that are cheating and let's support the people who just need a little bit more education with that process,” said Derek Figueroa of Denver-based Seattle Fish Company.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, who oversees labeling of seafood, “one challenge faced by both consumers and regulators is the detection of "seafood substitution" in the marketplace - where a low value species or a species with a potential food safety hazard is mislabeled and substituted in whole or in part for a more expensive species or for a species with no potential food safety hazard.”

The FDA said substituted or mislabeled seafood is a violation of Federal law.


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