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ISSUE: Seafood Fraud

There’s a reason you may not want to buy grouper or snapper, unless the establishment has purchased the whole fish and done its own filleting.

Something similar goes for anything touted as wild shrimp or Gulf shrimp: There’s a 30% chance or more that it’s plain old farmed shrimp.

It’s easy to fall victim to seafood fraud, a costly problem that won’t go away because of unscrupulous suppliers. Restaurants and retailers are victims, and unwittingly sell cheaper, mislabled varieties to consumers.

The fraud exists when fish distributors deliberately mislable cheaper varieties for more expensive, popular ones. Imported basa and swai (whitefish species you’ve probably never heard of) are substituted for the much-in-demand grouper and snapper.

Why the bait-and-switch? Because there isn’t enough domestic supply of the desirable varieties. Imported “fakes” are substituted, and the difference only becomes clear only after the fish is cooked. The flavor and texture is simply not as good.

It’s easy to tell these varieties apart when they come out of the water. But once the fish is filleted, or the shrimp is cleaned, there is no head, scale, or other visual identifier to prove its variety.

It’s not that you won’t get an edible piece of fish. It has no deleterious effect. But it won’t taste as good as the original, and you’ll the price of the better species.
Studies & Solutions



Grouper is a very popular fish, but unscrupulous dealers sell cheaper fish and claim it’s grouper. Photo of fennel-crusted grouper courtesy McCormick. Here’s the recipe.


Food Hospitality, a restaurant industry website, reports on new studies conducted separately by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Oceana, the international ocean conservation organization. Both studies found extensive mislabeling problems at the wholesale level, largely focused on the easy-to-substitute species grouper and snapper.

Last year, Oceana looked at 1,200 fish samples from across the U.S. and found that roughly one-third were mislabeled according to FDA standards. A separate study of shrimp, America’s most-consumed fish or seafood, showed that 31% of restaurants sold misrepresented products, while 41% of retail markets sold misrepresented products.

Whatever species is being mislabled, retailers and restaurants get duped off as well as the consumer. Everyone overpays for lesser-quality fish and shellfish. Consumers, finding their dish less palatable than they had hoped, can bash the establishment online. Everyone loses.

The FDA says that slow progress is being made on the mislabeling front. A presidential task force is looking at the problem.



Basa, a type of catfish, is a cheaper fish often sold as grouper. Unfortunately, it lacks grouper’s particular flavor. Photo courtesy


But there is hope around the corner for fans of grouper.

Checking The RNA Of The Fillet

Researchers at the University of South Florida College of Marine Science have come up with a solution to the grouper problem. Their new product, GrouperChek, is a handheld sensor capable of sniffing out fish fraud on the fly.

Wholesalers and others can assay seafood samples using real-time nucleic acid sequence-based amplification. The instrument identifies whether the RNA is a match.

The researchers say the device is so sensitive, it can detect fake grouper even after the fish has been cooked, breaded and sauced.

Hopefully, now, the seafood supplier will do this testing before agreeing to buy the fish.

And hopefully, devices will be developed to test shrimp and other often-misrepresented species. Finally, there may be a cessation of the passing off of inferior species, which causes restaurants and retailers to unwittingly mislead and overcharge customers.



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KICKSTARTER: Hot Bread Kitchen Scholarships

We normally don’t promote Kickstarter campaigns because we have limited bandwidth, and prefer to focus our efforts writing about food.

But here’s an organization we feel strongly about, and your chance to pay it forward for very little.

The Hot Bread Kitchen is a Harlem based artisanal bakery that trains disadvantaged women to become professional bakers. They are raising Kickstarter funds for two scholarships.

The education will create long-term income opportunities for immigrant women, who can then obtain better-paying jobs to support themselves and their families. The graduates typically experience a 77% wage boost, moving on to jobs with benefits and room for career growth.

You can donate as little as $1 to the Women Bake Bread Scholarship.

Thanks for your help!



Immigrant women are trained as bakers. Photo courtesy Hot Bread Kitchen.



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FOCUS: So You Want To Be A Food Writer?

This week we received an email from a young food blogger, who asked about writing opportunities at THE NIBBLE. She wanted to “gain industry experience.” We get frequent inquiries of this nature from people of all ages. Here’s our advice.

There are limited career opportunities in food writing. If by “career” you mean an occupation with an income that can support you, the continued demise of magazines and newspapers has resulted in fewer and fewer full-time writing and editing jobs. The outlook is not good.

There always have been many more people aspiring to earn a living as a writer, than there have been positions for them. Now, full-time jobs are drying up. Freelance writing is hard to get; the good jobs rely on connections, and even those pay less and less as the publishing industry profits erode. Many people think they can “pay their dues” by writing for a pittance, or even for free, and subsequently turn that experience into more profitable assignments. Those “dues” will rarely turn into properly paid work. We have colleagues who are highly respected and connected freelancers, with 20 years of experience; they are still offered a few hundred dollars for a large amount of work.


Writing can be very satisfying, but it’s usually far from lucrative. Photo by C. Unie | SXC.

The people we know who blog for different sites get $5 to $10 a blog post, whether it be restaurant reviews, product reviews, recipes or other types of food writing. Like pursuit of the creative arts (acting, music, painting, etc.), pursue the art you love but have a “day job” to pay the bills.

That‘a the down side, the reality of the business. But if you want to give it your best shot, here’s what we suggest:

Have a blog and expand it. If you already have readers, ask them what they’d like to see. Every time you research new content, you add to your professional expertise. Consider interviewing bakers, pastry chefs and industry executives for trends and tips. By interviewing people, you make connections that could lead you to other work.

Ask for ideas and constructive criticism. Speak with people who read other food blogs and ask them for input on yours. Don’t respond directly to criticism; one can’t help but be defensive when one’s work of passion is being judged. Just “take it under advisement” and decide how to address the input.

Get business cards with the title Food Writer or Freelance Food Writer and the link to your blog. You can do this inexpensively at or Every time the topic of food or your occupation comes up, hand out a card. You never know when a connection will be made, if not that day then down the road.

Join industry associations. Not only will you meet people, but the memberships will strengthen your resume. Go to the meetings of local groups, participate in the message boards, attend conferences. Make friends and hand out those cards. Volunteer for committees, where you get to really know people and they see your skills in action. We think the best committee is the programming or speaker committee. It gives you the opportunity to call leaders in the industry and invite them to speak. You’ll get to introduce yourself to someone who would never take your call under other circumstances.

Network, network, network. Take a class and/or read books on networking. Learn how to find leads in every encounter with everyone, from your hairdresser to friends’ parents. Then, give your “elevator pitch” to everyone you speak with (You’ll learn what that is).

Build the skills you need to stand out. The key talent required for success in most fields is not the industry expertise itself, but the business skills: pitching, selling, deal-making. Read books or find a mentor who can help you to build the ability to sell yourself and your ideas.

Get as close as you can to working in a food related business, in any capacity. It’s by meeting people and getting them to know and like you that other opportunities develop. Even if you had a clerical job at an ingredients manufacturer or a restaurant equipment distributor, for example, you could volunteer to do their blog or social media and build the credentials to move up to a job that focuses on writing. Often, a job that gives you the opportunity to write is not a full-time writing job.

Get a certificate in food studies. See what‘s available in your area or online. This will seriously differentiate you from other job candidates. Many major media outlets require their entry-level people to have such a certificate, even if they are Phi Beta Kappa graduates of Harvard who edited the school paper.



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FOOD FILM: Butter, The Movie

Got plans this weekend?

How about Butter? The latest film from The Weinstein Company opens today in the United States and Canada.

When we were first invited to a screening of the film, we knew nothing about it except the cast. We thought it would be related to food, hence the invitation.

Well, it’s not about butter, the food. It’s about butter, the sculptural medium.

If you’ve never seen butter sculpture competitions at state or county fairs, you’ll be wowed by the art showcased in the film. Some of it’s tongue in cheek, but all of it made us say “Wow!”

We’re not going to provide a proper film review: We’re food reviewers, not film reviewers.

But in one sentence: We thought the film was quite the tasty spread. We’d see it again.


Photo courtesy The Weinstein Company.


The cast, given fun characters to chew on, includes the boldface names in the movie poster (above) and a preturnaturally wise child, Yara Shahidi. Kristen Schaal also deserves a shout-out.

If the film inspires you to learn the history of butter, the different types of butter, butter storage tips or the how to bake with butter, we’ve got it covered.

And check out our compiled list of real “food films.”


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ISSUE: Bee-Ware Of Dishonest Honey

Do you care if your honey is “honest honey”—ethically sourced? Then read the labels.

Last year, the U.S. produced only about 144 million pounds of the 382 million pounds of honey consumed. The remainder was imported from Argentina, Brazil, Canada and other countries.

And it’s the “other countries” wherein the problem lies—specifically, Asian imports.

Two years ago, the U.S. imposed a 500% tariff on honey from China because the Chinese government subsidizes Chinese honey makers, with the goal of driving U.S. producers out of the market. The practice nearly ruined the market for domestic honey.

To get around the tariff, China has been using labels such as “Product of Thailand” or “Product of Indonesia” on 100% Chinese honey, rerouting its products through other countries and/or mixing tiny amounts of Thai or Indonesian honey into Chinese honey. This is neither ethical nor legal. And it’s certainly not sweet.


Only buy “honest honey.” Photo courtesy
National Honey Board.

So keep your eyes open, read labels and strike a blow for justice by buying “honest honey.”

Learn more at

Find the sweet side of honey in THE NIBBLE’s Honey Section: product reviews, recipes, food and honey pairings and articles all about honey.

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