A few weeks ago, restaurateur Martin Sheridan discovered his famed "hot and spicy" shrimp came from China.
The owner of the Ear Inn, the second-oldest tavern in New York, quickly asked his fish purveyor to "get them from anywhere but China." Last month, the US Food and Drug Administration announced that some Chinese seafood tested positive for banned substances.
Because of those findings, which led the FDA to restrict certain seafood from China, some Americans are beginning to look more closely at ocean selections in restaurants – from Hayes Street Grill in San Francisco to Cucina D'Angelo in Boca Raton, Fla., to the Ear Inn in New York. Diners are asking: Where did the tilapia special come from? Who caught the all-you-can-eat shrimp? Is the salmon farm-raised or wild?
It's too early to know if Americans will permanently change their eating patterns because of concerns about Chinese seafood. But fisheries experts worry that more Americans will opt for barbecued beef or chicken instead of barbecued salmon.
This could reverse the trend of rising seafood consumption, up 11 percent since 2001. The average American now consumes 16.5 pounds of seafood per year, up from 14.8 pounds six years ago. Shrimp is the top choice, representing almost a quarter of the seafood that Americans eat.
And these days, most of America's seafood arrives from foreign shores. According to the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood trade organization, 75 to 80 percent of fish is imported. In addition, some 40 percent of all seafood comes from domestic and overseas fish farms.
It's those fish farms, particularly in China, that are raising the most eyebrows. Late last month, the FDA announced that Chinese-farmed eel, dace, basa, catfish, and shrimp must be tested and shown to be residue-free before they are allowed in the United States. The FDA found that samples of those fish had unacceptable levels of antibiotics, as well as drugs that are banned in the US.
And so now, awareness at local restaurants is growing – and fisheries experts worry that consumers are having more doubts about finned species.
The contamination concern "definitely adds to the confusion since we are so globally dependent on the seafood supply and don't know the quality," says Usha Varanasi, science and research director for the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. Her organization is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
She adds, "It's important to identify the sources of fish and make sure we have good data and easily accessible information."
That, however, has been a highly controversial issue. Consumer advocates were successful at getting country-of-origin labeling for fish into the last farm bill. But it only applies to large grocery stores.
"The problem is that companies that import seafood don't want consumers to know where their seafood comes from," says Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, a consumer advocacy organization in Washington. "Most of the big seafood chains are almost entirely serving imported seafood."
Catfish and politics
Just back from a trip to China, seafood importer Matt Fass, president of Maritime Products International in Newport News, Va., says the issues surrounding safe-to-eat fish have a heavy dose of politics in them. For example, he blames the domestic catfish lobby for trying to stifle competition. "The issue is not necessarily health and safety," he maintains. "I know not everything is perfect in China, but we know what a great job they are trying to do."
No doubt for consumers, much of this is confusing.
Mark Wolfe, a resident and frequent restaurant patron in the nation's capital, says he never considered the lineage of the piscine course. "I'm thinking about it now," he says. "You know that farm-raised salmon is questionable. Now, what are we supposed to do?"
That type of confusion is causing diners to avoid the ocean side of the menu at Cucina D'Angelo in Boca Raton, reports chef Angelo Morenilli. Patrons are not ordering as many shrimp dishes because of concerns about Chinese seafood, he says. "The big news has stuck in their minds, and now they ask where the fish came from," Mr. Morenilli adds.
Over in San Francisco, Susan Nagy says she's horrified at how many times she and her husband may have eaten shrimp from China. (Only 7 percent of shrimp sold in the US is imported from China.)
"Now, I have to think twice before I will purchase or order it," she writes in an e-mail. "I am wary of shrimp now even if it's not from China."
Ms. Nagy notes that it's becoming more common for restaurants to inform diners of where fish were swimming when they were caught.
That's the case at Hayes Street Grill, where a recent menu included the local catch, "Steve Fitz's Half Moon Bay Sand Dabs." The menu notes that the item was caught using a Scottish seine, which is supposed to create the least disturbance to the ocean floor.
San Francisco restaurants "are the pioneers of the informational menu," says Patricia Unterman, chef and co-owner.
Americans 'don't pay attention'
Yet for the most part, "We usually don't pay attention to where our food comes from," says nutrition professor Carol Johnston of Arizona State University.
That's the case in New York, where John Southerland, a visitor from Huntsville, Ala., had a shrimp cocktail at Spark's Steak House. He didn't ask where the shrimp came from, but he remembers the restaurant "as the place where the mobster got shot out front."
Even restaurant personnel may need some prompting on fish origins. Take Hale and Hearty Soups, a chain in New York City. At one of its locations in Manhattan, it has a shrimp creole soup on the menu. One of the staff says she has no idea where the shrimp came from since the soup is made in a central location.
The website for Hale and Hearty gives the calorie content of the shrimp soup, but no indication of where the shrimp came from. "Good question," says Simon Jacobs, CEO of the company. "I don't know, but I'll call our supplier to find out."
A day later, Mr. Jacobs e-mailed that his purchaser believes the shrimp come from Ecuador, which is one of the largest sources of farmed shrimp in the West.
On a recent day, the Ear Inn had a shrimp dish on its blackboard of specials. "Where do the shrimp come from?" the bartender is asked. "The purveyor," she replies.
"No, what body of water?"
"Oh, who knows," she answers.
"Maybe the chef?" the other suggests.
"He wouldn't have a clue, I guarantee it," she declares.
The shrimp are from Thailand, says the owner, Mr. Sheridan.