Sugarfish is fighting seafood mislabeling in a big way: “Let’s crush the language problem so all that’s left is the fraud problem.”
If you want to understand the “whole story of quote-unquote ‘mislabeling,’” Jerry Greenberg says, one way to start is by considering how the words on the menu at Sugarfish are changing.
“Snapper from New Zealand as of this month will now be called 'N.Z. sea bream,' which is a result of the government in New Zealand and the government here coming to an agreement on what is an acceptable name for the fish,” says Greenberg, CEO of Sushi Nozawa Group, the company behind Sugarfish, KazuNori, and Nozawa Bar.
This is an issue of language. To be clear, what Sugarfish, a wildly popular sushi chain with ten L.A. locations, is calling sea bream and what it used to call snapper are the exact same fish.
“It’s 'snapper' in New Zealand,” Greenberg says and laughs. “It’s pretty clear that this is a trade dispute. Snapper from the Gulf is different than snapper from New Zealand. The people protecting our snapper don’t want another fish called 'snapper.' But, whatever, they finally worked it out.”
Greenberg considered referring to the New Zealand fish by its Japanese name, tai, which is in the same family as madai. (“All Japanese chefs I know will refer to those as snappers,” he says.) But Sugarfish decided that using the Japanese name would create more confusion, so the menu is calling it sea bream and explaining that this is known as snapper in New Zealand.
“I think it’s really important for people to know that it is the same fish,” says Greenberg, who understands from experience that not all customers will believe him. “There will be some people who are like, ‘No, I know. I’m eating it. I’m telling you it’s different.’”
Greenberg had something like this happen when Sugarfish changed the name halibut to hirame on its menu. He got complaints from customers who insisted this was not the same fish. Maybe Sugarfish was cutting it a new way, some suggested? No, only the name had changed.
Halibut vs. hirame is a good example of how the same fish can go by different names, not just in different countries but also in different parts of the same country. Hirame is known as fluke on the East Coast but has long been known as halibut in L.A., Greenberg says.
When Greenberg opened a New York outpost of Sugarfish in 2016, he realized that calling this fish "halibut" “was not going to make any sense to the people in New York. So we decided to call it 'hirame,' the Japanese name, with an asterisk that very specifically says our hirame is fluke from the Northeast part of the United States, which is frequently called 'halibut' in Los Angeles.”
It’s no surprise that things like this are frustrating to Greenberg, a restaurateur who’s focused on hyper-specific sourcing and making sure he simultaneously offers great ingredients and value for his customers. When a lot of people think of seafood mislabeling, they think of fraud and stories like last week’s Associated Press investigation into supplier Sea to Table. But, again, what Greenberg is talking about at Sugarfish is a language issue. It’s not unlike how Jewish delis in L.A. serve barbecue cod, which is known as sablefish in New York.
Of course, Greenberg realizes, the language problem and the fraud problem can go hand-in-hand in the sushi world.
“The language problem is hiding the fraud problem,” he says. “If you really say there’s two different problems, let’s crush the language problem so all that’s left is the fraud problem. Then let’s find out where in the supply chain the fraud is happening and make it go away.”
So Greenberg has joined the LMU-led Los Angeles Seafood Monitoring Project, which launched on March 5. He’s collaborating with LMU biology instructor Demian Willette, as well as researchers at Arizona State, UCLA, and California State University, to clarify ambiguity in seafood labeling and provide free DNA testing for fish sold at restaurants. The team is working with governmental agencies and also big restaurant groups like those behind L.A.’s Sushi Roku and Katsuya to figure out what certain fish should be called, once and for all.
“The FDA, both at the state and country level, have been very engaged and very helpful, so we’re excited about that,” Greenberg says. “All we want is that, in a year or two, all the noise around mislabeling that has to do with culture or trade gets simplified, and then the spotlight can be really pointed on where people are frauding the system.”
The L.A. Seafood Monitoring Project is working on a shortlist of maybe 15 to 20 fish. The team is attempting to handle points of contention like how there are five different fish that are allowed to be called "amberjack," but only one of them is allowed to be called "yellowtail." What’s the best way to help customers understand the difference between hamachi, kanpachi, kampachi, hiramasa, and yellowtail? Greenberg says that perhaps names like greater amberjack and almaco jack will be used, but he’s not sure yet.
“Hamachi is the one we believe should be called 'yellowtail,'” Greenberg says. “But our beliefs aside, what are you supposed to do if you happen to serve three of those fish? Would you like your amberjack or your amberjack or your amberjack?”
Greenberg wants to end confusion at Sugarfish, and he admits that, “selfishly,” there is another reason for his involvement with the L.A. Seafood Monitoring Project.
“We’d like to avoid the once-every-18-months, a reporter writes an article about all this mislabeling,” Greenberg says. “Everybody gets all wound up. It’s not the issue we should be focused on. The issue is fraud, not whether it’s greater amberjack or amberjack in our opinion.”
Last year, Sugarfish found itself in one of these articles and Greenberg felt the need to respond.
“It was the first time our name was part of an article like this,” says Greenberg, who started Sugarfish with a Marina del Rey location that opened in 2008. “We care so much about this issue. We’ve been on this problem for a long time and we do not believe in any way, shape, or form that we mislabel our fish.”
The piece ran in The Hollywood Reporter, and Greenberg wrote a rebuttal after having “a great conversation with the folks at The Hollywood Reporter, who were good enough to engage in a dialogue.” In his response, Greenberg made a point to say that he’s willing to work with anybody interested in the battle against mislabeling and fish fraud. The whole experience is what brought together Greenberg and Willette, the LMU researcher who was quoted in The Hollywood Reporter article.
“He’s like, ‘If you really want to work on it, then let’s work on it,’” Greenberg says.
Now it’s time to deal with the language problem.
“The Seafood Monitoring Project is going to put together the shortlist, publish it, and then track all the restaurants’ performance together,” Greenberg says. “The idea is, we’re going to see a significant narrowing of the issue. We’d like to see this problem solved.”