I want to present an alternative perspective on the big Boston fish scandal. For anyone who hasn’t been following it, some investigative reporters did DNA tests on 200 orders of fish from Boston restaurants and grocery stores to see if the fish that was being sold was really what was being advertised. Of course, they found that about half were a cheaper alternative. The restaurant’s had various excuses. One said he just didn’t like the look of the snapper that morning, so he got something else (which was of course cheaper). One said that they intentionally used cheaper ingredients to avoid raising prices (but of course didn’t change the menu). One said it wasn’t his deception, the distributor he bought the fish from must have lied to him. The excuse I like the best is that one said the actual fish they use has a terrible name, so they use the name of a fish that sounds better (i.e. it wasn’t the price of the fish).
So, customers are getting cheated at some of Boston’s best restaurants. Everything from Legal Seafood to neighborhood sushi bars. The honest ones were Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and The 99 (low end sit down place). The fish most likely to be fake was Red Snapper (which was often Tilapia), White Tuna (which was often Escolar), and Cod (which was often Hake). Customers are paying for $5/lb fish (red snapper) and being told they are getting $5/lb fish and are really getting $2/lb fish (tilapia). Or $10 fish (white tuna) v $5 fish (escolar).
And it is true, the restaurants are cheating. But it is also true that it isn’t as bad as it seems. There is a lot of behavioral science research which shows that if you really think you are eating a $10/lb fish, it will taste like it. You will enjoy it just as much. And most of the value in the entrée is really in the recipe, cooking and preparation skill, presentation, and atmosphere. If you were asked to try two dishes of the same recipe and chef, both labeled as red snapper but one really tilapia (or white tuna and escolar or cod and hake), you probably wouldn’t notice any difference. You might even like the cheaper one better.
I haven’t seen studies that focused on fish, but they have found this result with wines, colas, and other products. There is enough top down processing that if you think you are drinking a $50 /bottle wine, it really does taste like it. Even if it is really $10 wine. Even wine experts often couldn’t tell the difference.