In a diminutive shack in Eugene, Oregon, in a neighborhood that until recently was a better place to find meth than a decent meal, Taro Kobayashi is carving into the pinkest block of tuna I’ve ever seen.Kobayashi is the owner and head chef of a restaurant called Mamé. He seats no more than 19 people at once, and if you didn’t make a reservation, you might not squeeze in until after 10 p.m. The cramp and the call ahead are worth it, though, because Kobayashi buys fish only if he knows precisely where it came from—the fisherman, the boat and the body of water. He doesn’t buy fish unless it’s in season, no matter how much his customers might ask for it. He can tell you all about why it’s better to wait five days to serve tuna (that gives the flesh time to recover from the stress of being caught) or how the yellow tint on the seared Nantucket scallops indicates they’re female. Knowing his fish is “really important,” Kobayashi says. When asked about the mystery meat served at most sushi bars across the world, he says, “You guys deserve better.”Subscribe to Newsweek from $1 per week
You might assume his obsessive focus on quality ingredients would be common in a cuisine that features raw fish, but it isn’t. Even after a glut of media reports last year on the publication of an alarming book that exposed a rampant practice of fake fish being sold as real fish, complacent consumers are still being duped. In November, the nonprofit seafood sustainability advocate Oceana released a report updating its review of seafood fraud globally. The news was mostly bad. On average, the percentage of seafood mislabeled has hovered around 30 percent for the past decade, according to an analysis of 51 peer-reviewed studies published since 2005. “The snapper is 87 percent wrong?” says Kobayashi, referring to a stat from an earlier version of Oceana’s report. “That’s insane. We should be outraged, as a nation.”The industry is changing but slowly. Sushi heads are newly alert, and the industry is scrambling to meet their demand for honestly sourced fish.
One of the nation’s few hubs for traceable seafood is Oregon, especially Portland. At Portland’s Bamboo Sushi, every item on the menu is tagged with a different-colored fish icon, signifying the range of sustainability and traceability offered. Bamboo is one of only a handful of sushi spots nationwide that hips its patrons to what they’re eating and where it came from. The reason that’s so rare, says founder Kristofor Lofgren, is because stocking quality fish is tough. “Most sushi restaurants are mom-and-pop,” Lofgren says. “They need fish. They call a local distributor. They ask, ‘What do you have?’ and the distributor asks, ‘What can you spend?’ They end up with an acceptable medium range.”
That medium range wasn’t acceptable for Lofgren; he wanted all of his fish to be high quality and reasonably priced, so he negotiated long-term deals with the best boats he could find. Building his own supply chain took 18 months, but in doing so he overcame the biggest obstacle to cleaning up seafood fraud: a massive and massively complex supply chain. Ninety-two percent of the seafood consumed in America is imported, says Phil Werdal, CEO of Seattle-based Trace Register, which provides a food traceability system for clients in 40 countries. Much of what’s landed at ports around the world comes from tens of thousands of individual fishermen. There’s no tracking system for all these trollers and trawlers. As a catch goes from deck to dock to processing plant to refrigerated truck, it could at any point have its label switched. Buyers with a little leverage can get close enough to the dock to ensure they get what they’re paying for, but small sushi restaurants can’t.