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Beware of the ‘white tuna’

Beware of the ‘white tuna’

If you see “white tuna” on the menu at a restaurant, beware. There is no species of fish called white tuna — and eating it may relegate you to a day stuck on the toilet.

What you’re actually being served is escolar, a member of the snake mackerel family — not tuna. The reason you may not want to eat it is because eating anything but moderate portions of escolar could cause severe digestive problems like diarrhea and stomach cramps. If you get sick from eating escolar, it won’t kill you, but it won’t be pleasant.

Ironically, said Dr. Kimberly Warner, senior scientist with the conservation group Oceana, the reason so many people find escolar tasty is the same reason it makes people ill. Like other popular food fish such as tuna and salmon, escolar is oily or “buttery” in taste. But unlike those fish, that texture is not from the much-vaunted omega-3 fatty acids, but rather a wax ester called gempylotoxin that cannot be digested by humans.

Despite the “toxin” in gempylotoxin, it’s not toxic, but in some people it will wreak short-term havoc on their gastrointestinal system.

“For that reason, our Food and Drug Administration advises against the sale of escolar,” Warner said.

That said, if properly-labeled, it’s not illegal to sell it.

“Their advice is don’t sell it, “ Warner said, “But it doesn’t carry any legal restrictions.”

A Key Largo restaurant, Sushi Nami, was temporarily shut down last week after the state Division of Hotel and Restaurants Public Food Service and Lodgings Inspections found escolar being advertised as “white tuna” on the menu.

Escolar, a deep-water fish, is cheaper for restaurants to buy than Albacore tuna. But the only type of tuna the FDA allows to be called white tuna is Albacore tuna packed in a can, Warner said, and that’s just a color grade designation, not a species label.

“Escolar is not tuna at all,” said Mahmood Shivji, director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University’s Department of Marine and Environmental Sciences. “Calling it tuna, even white tuna, goes against FDA regulations.”

Apparently, the mislabeling of fish is not uncommon in the region. Oceana conducted a study of South Florida restaurants in 2012 and found persistent fraud in the way fish was labeled. All the“white tuna” sampled by Oceana during the time it conducted its investigation turned out to be escolar, Warner said.

“South Florida has a recurring problem with seafood fraud,” she said.

Key Largo Fisheries, which supplies seafood to several Keys restaurants, does not sell escolar, owner Thomas Hill said.

“It’s not a normal thing for us to sell,” Hill said. “It’s been two years since we had someone catch one.”

However, restaurants do buy much of their fish from major suppliers like Cisco and North Star Seafood, the latter based out of Pompano Beach. North Star does sell escolar on its website. Hill said as long as people know what they’re buying and eating, he doesn’t take issue with the commercial sale of escolar.

“In moderation, it’s good to eat,” Hill said. “It’s not a bad fish.”

David Goodhue: 305-440-3204

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