Published: Good Men Project (June 9, 2015)
Why don’t we care what kind of fish we eat?
As the title of this article indicates, I have a very simple question:
If we wouldn’t be okay with eating a “mammal sandwich” or a “bird sandwich,” then why do we acquiesce in being fed something simply known as a “fish sandwich”?
My first hypothesis was that, on a cultural level, Americans simply don’t care to distinguish between different types of fish, at least not to the extent that we do higher animals. While we’re likely to encounter many of our fellow mammals in our day-to-day lives—to say nothing of various birds and insects—most of us can go an entire day without seeing (or at least paying attention to) a single fish if we so chose. Inevitably those fish that are commonly kept as household pets are not viewed as tantalizing potential food; the goldfish may outrank his domesticated counterparts in the mammalian and avian worlds (e.g., dogs, cats, parrots), but it’s doubtful most Americans would choose to eat one if other culinary options were readily available. As a rule, however, fish that aren’t specifically protected by our cultural mores are generally lumped in together.
On a cultural level, Americans simply don’t care to distinguish between different types of fish, at least not to the extent that we do higher animals.
While this speculation has some merit, it is hindered by one fact—namely that, under the right circumstances, Americans will disregard the specific identities of the mammals and/or birds that they eat. All you have to do is call your product a sausage or hot dog, or sell your burger from a fast-food restaurant chain, and we can be pretty blase about which animals we stuff into our gaping maws. Federal standards only require ostensibly beef products to contain 70% real cow, which leaves the rest open to rather creative interpretation. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that Americans would be as outraged as Europeans if it was revealed that they’d been flat-out tricked into eating horsemeat (as happened on the other side of the pond in 2013), but that’s only because horses have acquired a large amount of cultural protection (see the paragraph before this one)… and, of course, because now we know that our meat is gross, whereas before we had merely assumed it.
Regardless of why we don’t care about which fish we eat, however, this indifference has undeniable real-world consequences.
For instance, in the same year that Europe went into an uproar over the discovery they’d been fed mislabeled horsemeat, Americans shrugged off the revelation that roughly one-in-three fish sold in supermarkets and restaurants were fake—i.e., they may have been fish, but they weren’t the type of fish you thought you were being sold. The statistics are shocking: Fish fraudulence spanned from snapper (87% of which was tested negative for snapper DNA) and white tuna (59% negative) to halibut, grouper, cod, and Chilean sea bass (all testing between one-third and one-fifth negative). 74% of sushi restaurants, 38% of regular restaurants, and 18% of grocery stores reported at least one case of a wrongly labeled fish.
I suspect that this apathy, more than our cultural biases or preference for being kept in ignorant bliss, likely accounts for why people rarely question being fed a fish sandwich.
When it comes to major restaurant chains, I can report that McDonald’s fish sandwiches include Hoki and Whitefish, that Wendy’s uses North Pacific Cod, and that Long John Silver’s uses various combinations of Alaskan Pollock, Hoki, Hake, and Haddock. None of these fish strike me as particularly unappetizing, but then again, I wouldn’t know the difference if they were. It says a great deal about American culinary culture that I have found all of these fish sandwiches to be roughly the same in terms of taste, despite their multitude of sources. Indeed, I find virtually all mainstream fish products to be comparable in taste, a quirk I chalked up to a poor seafood palate… at least until I learned that even the more discriminating seafood enthusiasts are apparently easily fooled by corporate chicanery (again, see above paragraph).
In the grand scheme of things, of course, it probably doesn’t matter very much whether the catfish, red snapper, or flounder you ordered is actually ponga (a popular substitution fish), or whether McDonald’s would make less money if their iconic Filet-O-Fish was instead known by the admittedly less catchy Filet-O-Whitefish-and-Hoki. I suspect that this apathy, more than our cultural biases or preference for being kept in ignorant bliss, likely accounts for why people rarely question being fed a fish sandwich.
This may be convenient, but it’s also a recipe for catastrophe… or, at best, a public humiliation for fish consumers that will rival the European horsemeat scandal from not-so-long ago.