Action News Jax Investigates: Restaurants swapping out seafood -- and it could make you sick

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An Action News Jax investigation uncovered local restaurants swapping out seafood with cheaper alternatives.

Using DNA mapping technology, we tested fish at more than a half-dozen area restaurants and found many are mislabeling fish.

“Do you ever order white tuna?” asked Action News Jax Ben Becker.

“Yes,” said sushi customer Donna Barker.

But what she could get is something else.

“Have you ever heard of escolar?” Becker asked.

“No, never, never,” said Barker.

"It’s called the ex-lax fish,” said Dr. Randall Kevin Pegg, a professor of biotechnology at Jacksonville University.

RELATED: The Global Reach of Seafood Fraud

Analyzing to-go fish: Escolar vs. white tuna

Action News Jax dug through nine months of inspection reports for Clay, Duval and St. Johns counties and found 31 instances where restaurants were cited for misrepresenting food -- 10 for white tuna, 12 for catfish and seven for crab. (READ INSPECTION REPORT -- OPENS AS EXCEL FILE | FOOD MISREPRESENTATION COMPLAINTS -- OPENS AS EXCEL FILE)

We decided to conduct our own investigation, collecting samples from eight local restaurants where almost all had been cited by the state in the past.

Each time, we ordered white tuna rolls to go, packed them up and sent them to a lab in St. Petersburg that specializes in DNA mapping for fish.

The results found every single sample was escolar.

The Food and Drug Administration said that species of fish can leave some people with symptoms like food poisoning.

More than 90 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported and less than 1 percent is inspected by the government specifically for fraud.

“Virtually all seafood coming into this country is frozen from China,” Pegg said. “As we get more imported food, there will be more instances of mislabeling."

Restaurant Report: View past Action News Jax investigations, learn how to file a complaint

Confronting restaurant staff with the results 

With the DNA results in hand, Becker went back to the restaurants.

The manager at Crazy Sushi on Deerwood Lake Parkway admitted to using escolar, even though the menu lists white tuna.

“I think all sushi restaurants using escolar as white tuna,” the woman said.

At Sushi House on Baymeadows, we ordered white tuna, our receipt said tuna roll. But the tests show it was escolar in our to-go bag.

“We are going to do a new menu, dining menu. We have already changed,” said the manager.

At Fuji Sushi on Commerce Drive, we found a display that said escolar by the sushi bar, but our receipt and the menu still say white tuna. An employee said they are also waiting on new menus.

“Does the online menu say white tuna or escolar?” asked Becker.

“I think escolar,” she said.

But once again it was white tuna. She called it an oversight by the people who run her website.

“I am going to call them right now to remind them,” she promised.

As for Barker, she now plans to change her order.

“Would you continue to order white tuna, even if it’s not quote white tuna?” asked Becker.

“No, more than likely not,” she said. “Never had a problem but no I wouldn't, I don't want to order ex-lax, no I wouldn't.”

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State 'takes all incidents of misrepresentation seriously'

We sent the results of our DNA tests to the state and was told:

"The division of hotels and restaurants takes all incidents of misrepresentation seriously; this remains a high priority of ours. Thank you for providing the restaurant locations and test results. We will log them as complaints and send inspectors to conduct inspections accordingly."

According to the state, mislabeling food is considered an intermediate violation. Repeat offenders face fines, and could have their licenses suspended or revoked.

So far this year, only two restaurants in our area have paid a fine.

So why do restaurants use escolar?  It's a lot cheaper: We found it priced anywhere from $9 to $20 per pound.

The only type of tuna the FDA allows to be called white tuna is albacore, which costs $17 to $30 per pound.

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Mislabeled Fish

"It's called the ex-lax fish." Local restaurants accused of swapping your seafood with a cheaper alternative that could make you very sick.

Posted by Action News Jax on Monday, April 30, 2018