The operators of eight sushi restaurants in San Diego were convicted of seafood fraud for serving "lobster rolls" that didn't have any lobster in them, the City Attorney's Office announced Monday.
The "truth-in-menu" investigation was launched last year.
Investigators from the City Attorney's Consumer and Environmental Protection Unit purchased advertised "lobster rolls" from various sushi restaurants throughout San Diego, then sent them to a laboratory where DNA
testing confirmed that no lobster was found in any of the rolls.
"If they're looking at a menu and it says that it's a lobster product, it needs to contain lobster," said Kathryn Turner, who leads the City Attorney's Consumer and Environmental Protection Unit.
Instead of lobster, the testing revealed the substitution of various types of less expensive seafood such as crawfish or pollock. Follow-up inspections by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the city's investigator found no lobster at any of the targeted sushi restaurants in Carmel Mountain Ranch, El Cerrito, Hillcrest, North Park, Ocean Beach, Point Loma, Rancho Penasquitos and Tierrasanta.
The restaurants cited were:
- Little Tokyo on Carmel Mountain Rd.
- Edamami Sushi & Roll on Santo Rd.
- Wonderful Sushi on Black Mountain Rd.
- Ikiru Sushi on Womble Rd.
- OB Sushi on Newport Ave.
- Riki Sushi on 30th St.
- Wonderful Sushi on University Ave.
- RB Sushi2 on El Cajon Blvd.
Harney Sushi in Old Town was not on that list. The owner said it does not surprise him so many restaurants are trying to cheat the system.
"I think transparency is really important and being honest with your customers. I think it creates a loyalty," said Harney Sushi owner, Dustin Summerville.
Summerville said they work to provide a sustainable menu, with 90 percent of its products coming from local sources.
The undisclosed substitution of the cheaper seafood is a criminal violation of California law that prohibits the adulteration of food and the false advertising or misbranding of food items. Along with fines, the law also requires the offending businesses to reimburse all of the investigation costs, authorities said.
"The restaurant could have advertised a seafood roll. They could have said it was a crawfish roll, but they didn't," Turner said.
The eight sushi restaurants paid a combined $14,000 in fines and more than $5,000 to reimburse investigative costs. A grant also helped pay for the investigation, said Turner.
Turner said the restaurants are believed to be in compliance now. She added while these were misdemeanor charges, they could have been elevated to felonies if someone became ill or had an allergic reaction due to the substitution.
According to officials, each business pleaded guilty and changed its menu and other advertising to reflect the true content of the seafood rolls.