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.
In the U.S., country-of-origin labelling is common, but not fishing methods. In Canada, you're lucky if the person behind the counter at the grocery knows the difference between farmed Atlantic salmon and wild Pacific varieties.
But almost anywhere in the world, it's difficult to tell one fish from another, because the same fish can have several names while the same name can apply to completely different fish. Consumers can be excused for not knowing dorado, mahi mahi and dolphin are all the same fish, while the term sardine is applied to at least 18 different species of small fish, including some that bear no genetic or taxonomic relation to each other.
Purveyors of fish and seafood routinely take advantage of this confusion. According to a DNA-analysis study released last week by marine-conservation group Oceana, a shocking one third of all fish sold in the U.S. is mislabelled. The study found restaurants and grocers alike sell a variety of piscine species as increasingly rare "red snapper" and "grouper," pass off environmentally questionable farmed Atlantic salmon as wild Pacific varieties or serve customers escolar, which most humans cannot digest, while presenting slices of the inedible oily creature as "white tuna" or "butterfish."
This is not the least bit shocking, given how little attention the Western world typically gives to the question of where their food comes from. Despite a decade of food porn on television and the activism of journalists such as Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, most of us continue to actively avoid thinking about the industrial food-production, processing and distribution system that provides us with most of what we consume.
The outrage in Europe over the presence of horsemeat in products that were supposed to contain only beef merely highlighted the hypocrisy of a culture that generally prefers not to think about what we eat. In English-speaking countries, where strong taboos against eating horsemeat persist, consumers are revolted by the idea of consuming an animal that's actually healthier to eat than beef and may in fact be raised more humanely, depending where you are in the world.
The problem is not the consumption of horsemeat, which has more protein and less fat than beef and usually tastes superior in raw preparations such as carpaccio or tartare. In Montreal and Quebec City, horse tartare is so common, you can find it at a fast-food chain, Frites Alors. In Winnipeg, at least two bistros occasionally serve horse sausage as part of their charcuterie boards. My point: If you approve of eating meat, there is no rational reason to oppose the consumption of horse.
The problem, however, is presenting a product as beef when in fact it contains the flesh of entirely different species of mammal. Consumers have a right to know what they are consuming, not just to avoid the queasiness of eating a creature they deem cute, but so they can make their own nutritional, environmental and ethical choices.
Canada is among the world's laggards when it comes to food labelling. We also tend to test the heck out of Canadian-raised meat and poultry while turning a blind eye to questionable seafood imports.
This leaves it up to consumers to demand better from their groceries and restaurants. In a very minor victory for cranky customers everywhere, I'm pleased to say one Winnipeg sushi restaurant no longer pretends to sell endangered bluefin.