Sushi Rebuttal: A Co-Founder Defends Sugarfish's Sourcing and Labeling

Courtesy of Sugarfish

The co-founder of Sugarfish offers a response to the THR study that explored mislabeled fish at some of L.A.'s leading sushi restaurants.

After The Hollywood Reporter published a study on mislabeled sushi at eight well-known restaurants in Los Angeles, one of them — Sugarfish — expressed concerns about the findings. In our study, DNA testing indicated that two of the four samples we tested did not match the FDA-approved species designation for that item. (A sample of salmon from Sugarfish was excluded from the final results because DNA sequencing data was not definitive, but THR has no reason to believe it was mislabeled.)

Jerry Greenberg, who co-founded Sushi Nozawa LLP in 2008 with chef Kazunori Nozawa, asked for an opportunity to express the company's position on the study's findings and to explain how Sugarfish sources and identifies fish. Here is his statement. 

Last week, The Hollywood Reporter published an article on mislabeled sushi in eight Los Angeles sushi restaurants. We were surprised and disappointed to see SUGARFISH called out for two instances of mislabeling. Simply stated, we have a difference of opinion on the findings.

We expect zero issues when it comes to labeling at Sushi Nozawa Group (SUGARFISH,KazuNori,Nozawa Bar), because we care deeply about labeling, and believe we go above and beyond the rules on labeling to protect our guests, and honor the trust they place in us. We have been committed to getting it right on this topic for nine years, and have gained a great deal of knowledge along the way.

Over the last five days we have sought to understand the article’s conclusions on two of our fish — Hirame and Snapper. Without those two issues, we would have zero mislabeling. Allow us to explain the difference in opinion we have with the article.

The first issue is the Halibut test. We do not have Halibut on the menu. We serve Hirame, which we identify on the menu as “Fluke from the US North Atlantic Coast, which in LA is commonly called Halibut.” If our reference to Halibut was interpreted to mean we serve Halibut, that is not clearly our intent, and since we purchase it as both Fluke and Halibut, we believe the explanation on the menu is appropriate and necessary. Our Hirame was tested and the results indicated it was Summer Flounder, a common name for the species we serve, Paralichthys dentatus. Per the FDA's Seafood List, Fluke and Flounder are the two acceptable market names for this species. For that reason, we do not believe this is a case of mislabeling fish, but rather confusion over acceptable names for Paralichthys dentatus.

The second issue is the Snapper test. The testing correctly identified our New Zealand Snapper is Pagrus auratus, a species of fish with many names, including: New Zealand Snapper, Silver Seabream, Pink Sea Bream, Pink Snapper and Australasian Snapper. The test results identified our Snapper as Silver Seabream. However, according to the FDA, neither New Zealand Snapper or Silver Seabream are associated with this species of fish; the FDA recommends only the names Porgy or Squirefish, names we’ve never seen used anywhere. In situations like this when labeling the fish is complicated, if not contradictory, we believe our responsibility is to follow the instructions given to us by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health’s Trust-in-Menu program: We call the fish by its local trade name or the name that's used when we buy it. In this case both the local trade name and the name on the invoice is Snapper/NZ Snapper. Again, we do not see this as an instance of mislabeled fish; we are abiding by Truth-in-Menu policies by calling it NZ Snapper from New Zealand.

Obviously, there are complexities when it comes to naming fish with local names, trade names, common names, local and federal governmental guidelines, international trade agreement and more.

Beyond labeling in general, it would be great to see efforts focused on fish fraud. Fish fraud is the intentional sale of a fish as something it is not, most often to substitute it with a less expensive fish.

As the article stated, it is difficult to pinpoint where fraud occurs; it could happen at multiple points in the supply chain or in the restaurant. While we don’t believe that fraud is a widespread practice, to the extent it exists, it needs to stop. When a guest orders a fish, that is the fish that they should be served: For example, no one who orders Salmon should be served less expensive Ocean Trout. We at Sushi Nozawa have never — nor would we ever — engage in any such activity.

To that end, we invite The Hollywood Reporter or anyone interested to report on the intentional and fraudulent mislabeling of fish in order to bring the issue to the public's attention in order to stop it. We will participate in such an effort with whomever, whenever and however.

At Sugarfish, KazuNori and Nozawa Bar we are fanatical about the ingredients we serve and work relentlessly to uphold our standards. We hope that others in our industry do the same and that our food media helps to educate the public by delving deeper into the complexities of naming fish, intentional and fraudulent mislabeling, and the distinction between the two.

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