There is nothing better than fresh scallops, seared to perfection by an experienced chef. From your favorite Italian trattoria to fine dining establishments overlooking the ocean, to popular sushi bars, you’ll find scallops on nearly any high-end menu around the world. Unfortunately, rumors are swirling all around the web that restaurants are trying to pass off stingray or shark meat as scallops.
Fact or fiction: do restaurants really use fake scallops?
A quick Google search for counterfeit seafood is sure to have your head spinning. Reputable publications like the NY Post and Fox News would have you believing scallop fraud is a rampant issue that you are likely to encounter on a restaurant menu. On the other hand, you’ll find peer forums like Flagler and the Hull Truth that claim fake scallops are a complete myth.
So what’s the truth?
A study by Oceana found that 6% of scallops tested were mislabeled, with most occurrences happening in Florida. However, in this study, the labeling error was not that they labeled a different type of seafood as scallops, but labeled one type of scallop as another. For example, one scallop labeled as a bay scallop was a sea scallop, and another labeled as a sea scallop was a common Japanese scallop.
The bottom line is: it is possible, but highly unlikely, that a high-end restaurant would try to pass off other forms of seafood as scallops. In an instance of scallop fraud, it is much more likely that the restaurant will be passing off one type of scallop as a different type of scallop.
What are fake scallops made of?
As it turns out, the most common examples of counterfeit scallops are made from… other scallops!
There are other rumors that seafood including flounder, stingrays, shark, or skate are cut into circles using cookie cutters and sold as scallops. There is little direct evidence that this is the case, especially in high-end restaurants. In fact, these rumors may have started from a passage in the book Jaws, where flounder is passed off as scallops.
That said, seafood fraud is rampant, so it is always possible that someone would try to pass off another type of seafood as scallops.
How to identify fake scallops
Size, shape, and location are indicators to help you identify scallop fraud. Sea scallops tend to be much larger than bay scallops, and calico scallops are smaller still. If you order sea scallops and they are surprisingly small, there’s a chance that they are really bay scallops. Bay scallops are often significantly cheaper than sea scallops. Bay scallops tend to be sweeter and more tender than sea scallops, but are most commonly found on the east coast.
Scallops vs. Stingray
On the off-chance that someone is trying to pass off stingray or skate as scallops, you will notice that every scallop is exactly the same size and shape in circumference, with a vertical taper from one end to the other. Real scallops will vary slightly in circumference, but fake scallops made from other types of seafood are cut to the same size with a cookie cutter.
The texture of scallops and stingrays also vary greatly, with real scallops having fibers that run lengthwise. Stingray and other similar fakes will appear much denser and more solid.
Other commonly mislabeled types of seafood
A study by the FDA found that at least 15% of seafood was mislabeled in states including California, Florida, and Maine,
Southern California has the highest rate of seafood mislabeling nationwide, according to a study by Oceana. There are high incidents of fish fraud everywhere from grocery stores, to restaurants, and even more commonly at sushi restaurants.
Aside from scallops, here are other common seafood swaps to watch out for:
- Red snapper labeled as tilapia, rockfish
- Chilean sea bass labeled as arctic toothfish
- Alaskan cod labeled as tilapia
- Atlantic cod labeled as white hake
- Wild/sockeye salmon labeled as farmed Atlantic salmon
How to avoid seafood fraud
So how do you avoid seafood fraud at the grocery store, high-end restaurants, or your favorite sushi spot? Start by asking questions about the fish: where and when it was caught, and whether it is farm-raised. If the price seems low for the quality they are claiming, chances are the fish could be mislabeled. If you buy from the grocery store, purchasing the whole fish is another good way to avoid fraud because whole fish are easier to identify than fish fillets.