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Lobster rolls at eight San Diego sushi restaurants lacked a key ingredient: lobster

Lobster rolls at eight San Diego sushi restaurants lacked a key ingredient: lobster
San Diego City Atty. Jan Goldsmith spoke to editors and reporters from the San Diego Union-Tribune in August. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune / Twitte)

An investigation by the city attorney's office has led to misdemeanor convictions against eight sushi restaurants whose "lobster rolls" apparently lacked a key ingredient.

Investigators bought the rolls at a sampling of restaurants and then sent them to a laboratory for DNA testing. The results revealed that less-expensive seafood, including crawfish or pollock, had been substituted for lobster.

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"Every single one that was tested was found to be false," said Kathryn Turner, chief deputy of the city attorney's consumer and environmental protection unit. Consumers are "paying for a premium product. They should be getting a premium product."

The "truth in menu" investigation was conducted in August and September 2014, outside the trapping season for California spiny lobster, which runs from October through March. Follow-up inspections were conducted by the city's investigator and state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

"The investigators went to the restaurants and said, 'Show us your lobster or your lobster invoices,'" Turner said. No lobster was found at any of the businesses in question.

The owners and operators of eight restaurants pleaded guilty to violating a state law that prohibits the mislabeling of food items, according to prosecutors. A ninth restaurant went out of business.

The pleas were entered in Superior Court between April and October. The defendants paid a combined $14,000 in fines and more than $5,000 to reimburse investigative costs.

Turner said such ingredient substitution presented a public health concern as well. For example, consumers may be allergic to the type of seafood — such as tilapia — that they received at a restaurant instead of the lobster they ordered.

City Atty. Jan Goldsmith's office said that each business named in the complaints changed its menu and advertising to reflect the true content of the seafood rolls.

Littlefield writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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