Massachusetts would levy fines on supermarkets and restaurants that mislabel seafood and become the first state in the nation to ban the sale of escolar, an oily species known as the “ex-lax” fish that is often served as sushi, under legislation expected to be filed Friday.
The bill, proposed by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, comes more than a year after a Boston Globe report revealed widespread seafood substitution in restaurants across Massachusetts. In many instances, less desirable and cheaper species took the place of fresh local fish. A follow-up investigation published last fall found most of those restaurants were still mislabeling seafood.
Businesses caught misrepresenting fish such as Atlantic cod, Atlantic halibut, red snapper, or grey sole could face fines of up to $800 and have their license to operate suspended or revoked after repeat offenses, according to the legislation.
“We want to make sure if you’re led to believe that you’re eating fish off the bay, it really is off the bay in Massachusetts, and not 3,000 miles or 6,000 miles away,” said state Representative Ted Speliotis, a Danvers Democrat and cochairman of the joint committee. “It’s an attempt on a statewide level to bring some standards to the fish industry.”
The law would also prohibit the sale of escolar, frequently mislabeled as white tuna or albacore at sushi restaurants, and punish first-time violators with a minimum $400 fine or license suspension. Albacore, a white tuna desired for its mild taste, is not related to escolar and typically costs 20 percent more.
Escolar, a fast-growing fish found in tropical and temperate waters around the world, is banned in Italy and Japan but is legally available across the United States.
The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the labeling of imported and domestically shipped fish, advises against the sale of escolar because it contains an oil that sometimes triggers severe gastrointestinal distress.
After the Globe’s five-month investigation in 2011, several restaurants — including Kowloon in Saugus, Oishii Sushi Bar in Chestnut Hill, and Skipjack’s in Foxborough — stopped selling escolar they had sold as white tuna or super white tuna. But other restaurants, such as Mr. Sushi in Brookline, continued to substitute escolar for white tuna without telling their diners.
Stephen Yung, the owner of Seiyo Sushi & Fine Wine in Boston’s South End, serves escolar labeled “white tuna (escolar).”
“I’ve used it for eight years, and I haven’t had one person complain,’’ said Yung, who opposes a ban on escolar. “Most customers who order it just have a couple of pieces, not a pound of it. It’s extremely popular.”
State officials pledged to improve the oversight of seafood sales in Massachusetts after the Globe found nearly half of the fish tested at 134 restaurants and supermarkets was mislabeled — and that few controls were in place to protect diners from potential health risks and overpaying for fish.
Nationwide, mislabeled seafood, which includes substituted species and fish with inaccurate weight labeling, is estimated to cost consumers and the industry hundreds of millions of dollars annually, according to industry groups.
Massachusetts already has some rules against the sale of misleading seafood that carry potential fines of $500, but state lawmakers said there is apparently no agency charged with enforcement.
The bill would give the Department of Public Health and the Department of Fish and Game authority to penalize businesses for mislabeling fish.
Peter Christie, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said he opposes the proposed escolar ban and fines for first-time mislabeling offenders.
“If there are some people who enjoy escolar, they should be able to have it,” he said. “But it should be called escolar. I believe in truth in menu. There should be a warning period, not fines, on first offenses when it’s an innocent mistake being made. Education is needed, and distributors need to be more forthcoming with details.”
But Beth Lowell, a campaign director for Oceana, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that focuses on fighting seafood fraud, applauded the proposed legislation.
“Fines and penalties are good first steps to addressing seafood fraud. And we’re supportive of the escolar ban given the high levels of mislabeling the health impacts of eating the fish,” Lowell said.
“The ideal long-term solution to is to track fish from bait to plate so that all fish, whether local or imported, is safe, legal, and honestly labeled,” she added.
Last summer, US representatives Edward Markey and Barney Frank, Democrats of Massachusetts, filed a bill that would force the fishing industry to publicly track seafood from the time it is caught and impose hefty fines for violators.
Markey plans in February to submit the legislation to the House of Representatives.