Allison Day


Imagine this: you go to your favorite sushi restaurant, order your favorite sushi or sashimi, and realize something seems a little off. It looks like your favorite sushi, even tastes like your favorite sushi… but something seems a little fishy (yes, pun intended 😉 ). A couple of days later, you read an article in your local newspaper about an investigation that has been done in local sushi restaurants which has found that according to DNA testing, ALL of the restaurants tested have been using a less expensive type of fish that looks and tastes similar to your favorite fish, and has been selling it under a false name! You would be understandably upset, right?

Unfortunately, this isn’t just some hypothetical nightmare… this really does happen. Recently there was an investigation into fourteen popular Chicago sushi restaurants. This investigation found that all fourteen of them were passing off other types of fish as red snapper. Nine of them were using tilapia, a much cheaper type of fish, while four others were using sea bream – still pricey, but not red snapper!

According to the articles I read about this (the two other articles I read referred to the Sun Times one, so I haven’t linked to them), most of the restaurant owners were very surprised when they were told that what they were selling as red snapper was really tilapia or sea bream. Most of them said that they order red snapper from the fish suppliers, but for some reason were sent the much cheaper tilapia instead. I find this troubling, because there are just a few fish suppliers that supply most of the restaurants in the U.S. with sashimi quality fish… which means that there’s a good likelihood that the sushi restaurants that I frequent and also those that many of you eat at probably have this same sort of fraud going on!

What do you think about this? Are you as concerned and troubled by this as I am? Do you think there should be some sort of regulation making sure that there is no fish substitution (there is currently no government oversight for substitution)? Leave your thoughts!

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  1. Graham says:

    Sadly this is common all over the US now and its just now being reported. Down on the Gulf Coast of Florida, we had a big scandal over the last year where prob. 70%+ of the ‘gulf grouper’ being sold in restaurants was actually a catfish species farm-raised in Vietnam. There’s no telling if the restaurants themselves knew about the fraud or if its just the distributors. Personally, I just don’t order much fish in restaurants unless its salmon or tuna now … pretty hard to fake those.

  2. iang says:

    also a lot of places at least around nyc a lot of sushi places list white tuna when it’s actually Escolar (, although personally I like Escolar more than actually white tuna (

    “The Japanese government wants to set up a certifying board to regulate sushi served in restaurants abroad. Japan’s Agriculture Ministry has convened a panel of food experts who will establish certification standards for Japanese restaurants outside the country. The standards should be decided upon sometime in the next month or so.” – taken from

  3. lordaDam says:

    I don’t know how the restaurant owner didn’t know that they were serving tilapia instead of snapper. Tilapia fillets usually have a recognizable shape to them and a distinctive red mark running down the middle. Here is a picture I found on Sushi Foods Co Website (I inserted line breaks in the URL so it would not break the page layout):

  4. Josh says:

    That’s pretty horrible, but as lordaDam says, it’s kinda odd how they don’t know the difference. Or perhaps they do know the difference, and they’re just turning their heads? I could imagine the price difference would be quite different between tilapia and snapper…

  5. Cass says:

    I too suspect that the restaurant owners were aware and are just passing the blame now. If they can’t tell the difference between tilapia and red snapper, what the hell are they doing running a sushi restaurant?

  6. Robert-Gilles Martineau says:

    I cannot really comment as I live in Japan… But like Cass, I do not believe that restaurants did not know what they were buying! My impression is that your compatriots might be tricked again when it comes to tuna!

  7. Kim says:

    I think I agree with the others that the owner probably knew the fillets weren’t snapper. I am very surprised that 14 restaurants are guilty. I work in the kitchen of a Japanese restaurant. Our snapper is bought whole, descaled in the kitchen and filleted at the sushi bar. I wonder if it’s common practice for other places to just buy the fillets? Very interesting articles, thanks for sharing.

  8. Robert-Gilles Martineau says:

    Dear Kim!
    Your restaurant is not only professional but intelligent. It might include some extra work, but buying the fish whole is the mark of a good restaurant! Moreover it is honest!

  9. Allison says:

    Thanks so much for your thoughts, everyone! Graham and iang, it’s terrible to hear that this isn’t just an isolated incident, but rather something that is happening all over the country. Everyone else, it does seem that it would be difficult for the restaurant owners not to know that the were using tilapia rather than red snapper… especially because the boxes that the fish were shipped in were labeled “Izumidai” (the Japanese name for tilapia)!!!! Of course, they could have ordered fillets and just not checked the box… and been overcharged by the fish suppliers, so who knows who was really to blame. But I still think it’s surprising and disappointing that all fourteen restaurants tested were guilty of fish substitution!!! 🙁 What is the world coming to? 🙁

  10. Yvo says:

    That’s pretty disturbing. Along similar lines (but not quite as bad, I suppose)… I recently discovered how important education about what you’re eating it. It’s also related to what iang said. A few years ago, the “it” dish to have was miso black cod (or some name similar to that). I never actually wound up having it, for various reasons. Anyway, I was going to this one restaurant and eating butterfish, loving it and wondering why I never see butterfish on other menus. Then I went to this other restaurant and had sablefish, also liked it. (I didn’t have any of these fish that many times either nor soon after the other.) I was watching Iron Chef a month or so ago and noted that the secret ingredient was some type of fish (I forget which name they used) and then Alton Brown popped up and said “You’re probably more used to seeing this fish called black cod! It’s actually blah blah blah” and I discovered that butterfish, black cod, sablefish, all the same fish! But with many different names. So all this time, I could have been eating my yummy fish but I didn’t order it because I didn’t know!!! Craziness. Chilean sea bass is actually “Patagonian toothfish” (according to a Ruth Reichl book, I believe)… it just fascinates me to no end that they have so many names and you just don’t know sometimes. Then again, I grew up knowing cod/scrod/haddock/whitefish/pollack are generally used interchangeably, so I guess it’s just a matter of how things are presented to me that surprise me.

    PS I really like white tuna or is it escolar? I don’t see it on many menus but I like it raw a lot… I wonder if I really like escolar or white tuna now.

  11. niki says:

    You know it’s funny, today my boyfriend said to me “I can’t believe your going to try to make sushi”. “What if it’s bad?” I said “well how do you know what your getting in a restaurant isn’t bad”? This article just shows exactly what you are or aren’t getting in a restaurant. I will definitely be trying to make my own sushi now plus i think it will be fun.

  12. Allison says:

    Yvo – According to Wikipedia, escolar is actually not a type of tuna at all, although it might be confusing because albacore (white tuna) is sometimes sold as escalor or escalar. Also, some places might refer to escolar as “super white tuna”… so confusing! 😛

    niki – Most of the time the fish isn’t bad in good restaurants, just not what you would expect to get. But of course, I agree that making sushi at home is a lot more fun! 😀

  13. Anonymous says:

    Escolar = orange oil diarrhea. Bon appetite!

  14. Allison says:


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