The long-abandoned "Signature Story" feature returns today thanks to Elizabeth Rosenthal's New York Times piece on the frequent mislabeling of fish sold to America's diners. This example is a little different than a few of the other ones, in that I'm not using to mock the outlet for living down to stereotypes about it but rather to congratulate it for the kind of thorough journalism the NYT is also known for.
That said, it does seem written to provoke outrage among the upscale foodies - hence the designation - who make up the paper's readership but it's a strong story with a point.
Environmentalists, scientists and foodies are complaining that regulators are lax in policing seafood, and have been slow to adopt the latest scientific tools even though they are now readily available and easy to use.
“Customers buying fish have a right to know what the heck it is and where it’s from, but agencies like the F.D.A. are not taking this as seriously as they should,” said Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist of the nonprofit group Oceana, referring to the Food and Drug Administration.
It would be easy to dismis the pleadings of "foodies" who are otherwise happy with their meals but this is a case of fraud with a huge economic impact and might be one place where there is a legitimate place for law enforcement between buyers and sellers to attest to the legitimacy of the transaction.
Furthermore, and this is probably where publicists got involved, she has a technology solution to recommend that the government could implement.
With the new genetic techniques, the gene sequence found in a fish sample is compared with an electronic reference library like that maintained by the International Barcode of Life Project, which now covers 8,000 varieties of fish compiled by biologists over the last five years. The testing is now relatively cheap: commercial labs charge about $2,000 for analyzing 100 fish samples, for an average of $20 apiece, but the cost is under $1 per sample for labs that own the equipment.
It would be better if producers volunteered to work with a private body to do this and then charge a premium for guaranteed grouper or something rather than force another big technology buy on our overextended federal government - but that doesn't detract from the journalism.
This is a high-impact story well done.