x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Something fishy about hammour on sale

Customers are routinely being cheated by shops and restaurants that not only mislabel cheap fish but bulk up frozen fish with ice and chemicals.

Hammour on sale in shops and restaurants is often subsituted for a cheaper fish.
Hammour on sale in shops and restaurants is often subsituted for a cheaper fish.

DUBAI // Shoppers are routinely being cheated by some supermarkets and restaurants that not only falsely label cheap fish as hammour but bulk up frozen fish with ice.

Some suppliers even inject the fish with chemicals that let it absorb even more water, to bulk it up further.

These are the views of both shoppers and fish suppliers. One shopper, Mohammed Ali, a Dubai resident, suspected he was being tricked when he saw frozen hammour on offer in a supermarket for Dh14.30 a kilo. Hammour usually costs at least Dh50 a kilo.

After defrosting it and draining off the water, his "kilo" weighed in at just 500 grams.

"Manufacturers are selling water to consumers who think they're getting a good deal," said Mr Ali. "This is daylight robbery."

Frozen fish is usually covered with an ice layer - called glaze - that accounts for 6 to 10 per cent of the weight. The glaze protects the fish from oxidation, dehydration and general deterioration.

In the US, the glazing limit is 10 per cent. But the UAE has no limit.

Mr Ali's fish was packed by Continental Food Processing.

Shaji Varghese, a sales and marketing executive for the company, admitted that adding extra glaze was common practice.

"If we have a good price from the supermarket, we only add 10 per cent of glazing," he said. "But if it's not, we add 20 per cent."

But, say some, overglazing should be a punishable offence. "On average, you'll find 30 to 40 per cent of water after defrosting," said JT, the manager of a seafood processing company in Dubai who asked to be identified only by his initials.

"But they [manufacturers] also started injecting the fillets with STPP, a polyphosphate that absorbs water after being injected.

"As a result, you thought you bought a kilo of hammour but in reality you only received [half]."

Not only did Mr Ali get far less fish than he bargained for, it was not even the right species. JHT confirmed the actual species was Pangasius, a type of catfish imported from Vietnam.

Pangasius is a fifth the price of hammour - and substitution is all to common, said JHT. "About 75 per cent of the hammour sold in Dubai isn't hammour. Yet people are being told it is, so they are basically being fooled and cheated."

The differences are subtle, and not all shoppers know about them. Hammour is white, while Pangasius is often light pink. They differ in size, too - while a whole hammour should measure 50cm to 60cm, Pangasius is typically half that.

"Even the taste is different," said JHT. "Pangasius is farmed and it's a freshwater fish, whereas hammour is a wild-caught, saltwater fish."

Hammour, also known as orange-spotted grouper, is a victim of its own success. Fished seven times beyond sustainable levels, experts say the fish is in serious danger of disappearing altogether in the next eight years.

As supplies have dwindled, the prices has risen considerably - from Dh30 in 2006, to around Dh50 a kilo now.

But consumers, especially commercial buyers such as hotels and restaurants, were not prepared to pay more. "So they [manufacturers] are experiencing severe price pressure from retailers and hospitality and were forced to look for alternatives," said JHT.

But when substituting the fish for another, he said "90 per cent" of manufacturers "forget" to tell their customers about it.

"The municipality should be more strict when it comes to labelling," said JHT. "If you claim it's hammour and it's not, that's a serious offence."

Although food items must include the product's name by law, the practice is not illegal.

"It is common to find this in the market and it's not illegal," said Amrou Shehata, a senior food control officer at the Ajman Municipality. "The municipality doesn't have specifications for each type of filet so it's up to the Ministry of Economy or the Ministry of Environment and Water to monitor it, although that can be difficult." He wants the practice outlawed. "This is how it is on the market," said Mr Varghese. "All other supermarkets do it, it's not illegal."

He admitted the fish was indeed Pangasius, not hammour, but said nothing could be done about it because he had no choice because he had no choice commercially. And the practice is common in restaurants, hotels and supermarkets, according to JHT.

"Sometimes, they use the Nile perch fish to replace hammour, even on fresh counters," he said. "People will see a sign saying hammour filet, so they will believe it but it's selling something else.

"Nobody probably even questions it because it's on the menu of five-star hotels, so who are you to judge that it is indeed hammour?"

cmalek@thenational.ae