Two Disturbing Seafood Discoveries

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - December 02, 2009
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It was just 15 months ago when a local grocery store agreed to change the way it labels and markets its seafood. The move came in response to a lawsuit filed by environmental watchdog Carroll Cox, who questioned why the store labeled its fish “fresh” when it wasn’t.

Ahi used in the store’s poke was treated with carbon monoxide, a gas that prevents discoloration and can make the fish appear fresh.

“The whole thing was the concern with deception - consumer deception,” recalls Cox.

As part of the settlement, the store agreed to stop using the word “fresh” in its advertisements when marketing the processed poke. It also agreed to stop marketing fish as opakapaka when it really was fish caught in Indonesia.


Seafood lovers may soon be filing another lawsuit.

Two disturbing discoveries have many second-guessing what they’re buying at their favorite seafood stores and restaurants. The first involves seaweed used in poke dishes.

For several months, Ala Moana Beach Park regulars have noticed a homeless man gathering limu called ogo from the park’s drainage canal. When asked what he does with the ogo, he says he sells it to stores in Kalihi and on Maunakea Street.

“Get plenty limu in there, and when I look at it, I wonder if I can eat it, but that’s a canal, you know what I mean,” says Dan Peralta of Waianae. “I see him at least twice a month. Somebody should talk to that person not to sell that, because somebody going get sick.”

State Department of Health officials agree, but say it’s difficult to “catch people in the act,” and there’s no proof that the seaweed seller doesn’t have a state-issued permit to sell food products.

“The stores certainly have a responsibility to sell safe foods so they should be assured they’re getting it from reliable sources,” says Laurence Lau of the health department. “The thing with polluted runoff is it can be literally everything, and if it’s Ala Moana, what’s the watershed? It’s urban Honolulu and it’s the forest reserve above the city. So literally you could have any type of thing washing into the storm drain, down the storm sewers and into the drainage canal.”

The second problem is happening across the state. A fish called walu is being labeled and sold as Hawaiian butterfish at stores and restaurants. It sounds harmless, until you hear the horror stories for those who eat too much of the oily animal.

The walu, or escolar, contains a high level of wax esters in its tissue that are beneficial to its deep-sea survival, but can be brutal to our digestive system.

“The human body isn’t built to digest waxes - certainly we can’t eat a candle,” says University of Hawaii assistant research professor Angel Yanagihara.

“That’s why there are such profound negative digestive outcomes such as the runs. This is an important area of proper labeling so the consumer can be aware of what they’re purchasing.”

The diarrhea can last up to two days, leading to severe dehydration.

“We see people in the emergency department who come in with diarrhea and a lot of times after eating fish. We assume it’s a type of food poisoning,” says Dr. James Ireland, an assistant professor at the John A. Burns School of Medicine. “A lot of times we never know what the true culprit was, and we’re going to really have to watch for this.”

Ireland says those who’ve suffered often have no idea what hit them. “This is a very explosive situation, so to speak, and I think that’s why they call it the Ex-Lax fish,” says Ireland. “Previous generations have a Hawaiian word for exploding intestines, and that’s what they called this oily little guy.”

In short, don’t be afraid to ask questions. It’s your right and, frankly, your responsibility.

If that doesn’t work, there’s always the threat of another lawsuit.

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