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Sushi Class Action Says Fish Has Got to Go

SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) - In a sushi class action, a diner claims a Southern California restaurant's "white tuna" is actually escolar, a "succulent" fish that induces diarrhea.

Lead plaintiff Cyntia Erickson sued V&J Sushi dba Maki Yaki Costa Mesa and its owner In Won Ko, in Orange County Court.

Erickson claims that in October 2014 she "ordered certain items off the restaurant menu including fish labeled 'white tuna.' Plaintiff discovered through a species identification test that the 'white tuna' was actually escolar, a completely different family of fish."

Escolar, a type of snake mackerel found in deep tropical waters worldwide, cannot metabolize wax esters found in its natural diet. A leading flavor chemist told Courthouse News that many esters are flavorful compounds that lend food a rich, fatty taste, of the sort that humans crave.

The esters the escolar cannot metabolize build up in its flesh. The resulting oily substance, gempylotoxin, in named after the fish's family, Gempylidae, and is similar to castor or mineral oil. Escolar flesh carries an oil content of around 25 percent, which acts like a natural laxative.

Reports of illness related to the fish include cramping, nausea, diarrhea and other abdominal pains.

Gempylotoxin, while indigestible, is not toxic to humans.

Food writer Harold McGee described escolar's ill effects in "On Food and Cooking."

"The wax esters therefore pass intact, their lubricating properties undiminished, from the small intestine into the colon, where a sufficient quantity will defeat our normal control over the ultimate disposition of food residues," McGee wrote.

Aficionados call the firm, white fleshed fish "buttery" and "balanced," and suggest limiting portions to 6 ounces or less.

The late chef Charlie Trotter, in ''Charlie Trotter's Seafood," called escolar "wonderfully succulent.''

"A spoon is all you really need,'' Trotter wrote.

Trotter paired the fish with braised endive, fava beans and a veal stock reduction.

Oceana, an environmental group, tested 114 samples of "tuna" from 2010 to 2013, and found that 84 percent of them were actually escolar.

In her July 29 lawsuit, Erickson claims: "In Won Ko intentionally participated in the deceptive mislabeling of escolar by the combination of: (1) ratifying the restaurant menu that omits the word escolar and (2) approving purchases of escolar with knowledge that the restaurant menu omitted the word escolar and called it 'white tuna.'"

Escolar and its West Coast cousin, walu, are often fraudulently sold as butterfish, super white tuna, oil fish or bincyo.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, after receiving complaints over diarrhea related to escolar consumption, issued a bulletin recommending against importation of the fish in the early 1990s.

Italy and Japan banned the sale of escolar due to its side effects.

Canada, Sweden and Denmark all require that all escolar come with warning labels.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suggests grilling the fish to remove as much oil as possible.

"Defendants' practice of bait and switch sale of seafood constitutes a violation of Civil Code section 1750 et seq.," Erickson's lawsuit states.

Erickson's proposed class includes California residents who purchased white tuna from the defendants in the past 4 years, and "without their knowledge" were served escolar.

She seeks class certification and punitive damages for deceptive advertising, unfair business practices and consumer law violations.

She is represented by Wade Miller of Long Beach, who could not be reached for comment Sunday. A phone call to the restaurant was not answered.

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