Sacred is a strong word to describe anything outside a church. Yet after generations of fishing openers and trips to the cabin, sacred may be the best word to describe the relationship that has developed between Minnesotans and their walleye.
Minnesota consumes more walleye than any other state. Walleye is Minnesota’s state fish.
But KARE 11 has learned the fish being advertised as walleye on the menus of several Twin Cities restaurants isn’t walleye at all, but a related species from Eastern Europe called zander.
During the past few weeks, KARE 11 employees ordered walleye at more than a dozen restaurants. Samples of those meals were shipped to Therion International, a private laboratory in New York specializing in the identification of fish and animals through DNA testing.
Those tests revealed the “Beer Battered Walleye” on the menu at Spectators Grille & Bar in Savage was really zander. The “Northwoods Walleye” on the menu at the Sunshine Factory Restaurant and Bistro in New Hope was zander too.
But why would a restaurant do such a thing? Money is one explanation. Zander is cheaper than walleye. “I can understand the incentive, but I don’t agree with it,” says Brad Rebers, a manager at Tavern on Grand in St. Paul. DNA tests show the walleye a KARE 11 employee ordered at Tavern on Grand was indeed walleye, as advertised.
Tavern on Grand sells 50,000 pounds of walleye a year. Based on walleye and zander prices quoted by a Minneapolis fish distributor, Tavern on Grand could save $2.00 per pound by switching to zander. That’s a potential savings of $100,000 per year.
But Rebers says he wouldn’t do it. “I can look you in the eye and say, no, I would not be tempted.” Rebers calls it false advertising, “I think you jeopardize your business in the long run if you do that.”
Like Tavern on Grand, Maynard’s Restaurant in Excelsior advertises walleye as its specialty. But DNA tests reveal the walleye purchased at Maynard’s was zander. Yet when a KARE 11 employee asked a server at Maynard’s where the walleye came from, she responded, “It’s Canadian walleye.”
Is it any wonder Terry Bennett takes offense? Bennett makes his living fishing for real Canadian walleye on Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. “They’re selling it illegally, as far as I’m concerned,” says Bennett, who hauls up another fish from his net and says, “there’s only one walleye, and this is it right here.”
Walleye produces income for 1,000 commercial fishermen on Lake Winnipeg, and Minnesota is the most important market for Canada’s government owned Freshwater Fish Marketing Corporation based in Winnipeg.
Freshwater’s Vice President of Operations, Steven Kendall, says there’s nothing his company can do to prevent zander from coming into Minnesota, “You’d just like it to be out in the open, and not masquerading as some product that it really isn’t.”
The menu at Jake’s Sports Café in Crystal advertises “Canadian Walleye,” while DNA tests reveal a KARE 11 employee was actually served european zander.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has a name for what the restaurants are doing. It’s species substitution, and it’s against the law. The FDA publishes a list of acceptable market names for fish sold in the United States. Walleye, for instance, can be legally sold as Walleye or Walleye Pike. But the FDA does not allow zander to be sold as Walleye.
The FDA’s reasoning is sound, according to the Curator of Fishes at the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota. Andrew Simons says the lineage that lead to the walleye and the lineage that lead to the zander split about twelve million years ago. “That’s pretty substantial,” says Simons, “they are definitely different species.”
Yet within the past few years zander has been quietly sneaking onto the plates of more and more restaurant customers, who have every reason to believe they are eating walleye. Customers at places like Majors Sports Café in Woodbury, where the menu reads Canadian walleye, but DNA tests reveal a KARE 11 employee was served zander.
The Walleye listed on the menu at the St. Croix Casino in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin, turned out to be zander too.
| Restaurants We Visited |
| Restaurants Serving Zander || Restaurants Serving Walleye |
| Sunshine Factory Restaurant and Bistro in New Hope Majors Sports Café in Woodbury Maynard's Restaurant in Excelsior Spectators Grille and Bar in Savage Jake's Sports Café in Crystal St. Croix Casino in Turtle Lake, Wisconsin |
| Tavern on Grand in St. Paul Sunsets in Wayzata Lord Fletcher's in Spring Park Zelo in Minneapolis Axel's River Grille in Mendota Carousel Restaurant in St. Paul Shelly's Restaurant in St. Louis Park |
|Restaurants in red contacted KARE 11 saying they switched to serving real walleye after our story. |
Managers or owners at all six of the restaurants tested by KARE 11, confirmed they were serving zander. But only Ryan Wentz, a Vice President for the Majors and Spectators restaurant chains, agreed to discuss the DNA test results on camera.
Wentz says his chef purchased zander, only after being assured by a food distributor that he was simply buying European walleye. Wentz says his company feels “lead astray” and “embarrassed,” adding, “If we had know, we wouldn’t have purchased it.”
Other restaurants also claimed they were misled by zander distributors. But several food distributors denied they’d done anything to mislead restaurants. Jim Walstrom, the president of Morey’s Seafood produced restaurant invoices showing fish labeled as zander, not walleye. “We make responsible decisions for our own business, how we market our products,” says Walstrom, “How someone else chooses to market it is beyond our control.”
Kevin Elfering, Director of the Dairy, Food & Meat Inspection Program at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, doesn’t hold distributors blameless, but says restaurants are ultimately responsible for what goes on their menus. “No matter what a salesperson has said, when it comes into a restaurant and it’s not labeled as walleye, you don’t put it on your menu as walleye.” Elfering said if he knew a restaurant was selling zander as walleye, “I certainly wouldn’t be patronizing them anymore.”
Now that the state has been made aware of the walleye substitution, Elfering says both restaurants and fish distributors can expect closer scrutiny. After all, a state that worships the walleye as much as Minnesota, is no place for bait and switch.
By Boyd Huppert
, KARE 11 News
(Copyright 2004 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)