BY Alan Burke
---- — When it comes to seafood, Cape Ann and other Massachusetts restaurants and marketers will be facing new truth-in-labeling mandates if a bill filed by a nearby North Shore lawmaker takes hold.
State Rep. Ted Speliotis, D-Danvers, is co-sponsoring legislation that would require restaurants to clearly label what they’re selling. At the same time, it would put a stop to the practice of substituting escolar — an especially tasty tropical fish known to cause stomach ailments in some — for white meat tuna.
“Fishing is part of our heritage,” Speliotis said. “And this is a way to keep the integrity of the industry.”
More specifically, he added, it will require that Pacific cod is not sold as Atlantic cod. The former is shipped from the West Coast frozen while the latter is a traditional New England product likely to be fresh. By putting a premium on the Atlantic cod, he indicated, prices could improve for local fishermen out of Gloucester and elsewhere. Other species intended for scrutiny are Atlantic halibut, grey sole and red snapper.
The bill, also sponsored by Lynn state Rep. Robert Fennell, has now won the approval of the House Public Health Committee. It was initially inspired last year after the appearance of news reporting that incorporated DNA testing to prove that some sushi sold as tuna was actually the much less costly escolar.
“But we’ve known of this type of problem all along,” said Speliotis, who recalled hearing his father tell him “Don’t order the scrod, because you don’t know what you’re getting.”
Scrod is a label notoriously given to all sorts of fish, experts say.
“But this goes beyond scrod,” Speliotis said, with people eating escolar when they think they’re eating tuna and getting ill as a result. The bill would stop the substitution of escolar by outlawing it outright.
“When they do these things,” said Mike Kiernan of the Marblehead Lobster Company, “it gives the whole industry a bad name. When it says haddock it should be haddock.” Kiernan is enthusiastically behind the law, although he points out that those selling inferior fish under false pretenses will often be hurting themselves.
“If they’re selling a frozen cod,” he said, “they won’t get away with it.”
A strong sauce might at first disguise the origins for some. “Sauce is a good way to trick people,” said Kiernan. But seafood lovers can tell the difference right off.
The Massachusetts bill mirrors a law already passed in Florida, said Speliotis. What’s more, he thinks passage here would influence the fishing business nationwide. “After this the industry will sell tuna as tuna.”
Speliotis acknowledges that labeling fish could seem daunting.
“But they do it at the supermarket,” he pointed out.
Getting behind this effort, he added, was part of his work previously on the Consumer Protection Committee.
The legislation anticipates fines for violating its prohibitions at $400 for a first offense and $800 for a second.