Practice dates to '60s and has SABS nod
Some retail scams have become so time honoured that they have acquired a respectability of their own. Those aren't my words - I took them directly from an e-mail I received recently from Capetonian Ernie Gay.
He was talking about the South African tradition of passing off smoked, salted, coloured hake as haddock.
And he's right of course. But somehow, the fish industry has been getting away with it for more than 30 years, and along the way, they've got the official nod to do so.
Yes, both the Department of Health and the SA Bureau of Standards permits the industry to refer to the dolled-up hake as haddock in large print on the front of their packs, as long as the word hake appears in the small print list of ingredients.
It's deception of course, but because no real haddock has been imported into this country for more than 30 years, and because, well, only the odd foreigner, who knows exactly what real haddock looks and tastes like, has complained, the practice has official sanction.
Hake, the species Merluccius paradoxus/capensis, lives, and is caught, in the southern waters where it thrives, while haddock - Melanogrammus aeglefinus - is a member of the cod family, and is found only in the northern Atlantic ocean.
When I asked I&J - part of the AVI group - to justify calling its product haddock when, in fact, it's hake, I was sent an article written by the company's former group technical manager, Terry Bennett, on the issue.
In it he explains how, in the 1960s, the industry first began experimenting with a local version of haddock because the imported real thing was expensive.
They settled on smoked, salted hake, but because consumers at that time "did not know smoked salted hake", and the idea was for this lookalike haddock to replace real haddock in South Africa, "it was agreed to call this new product Cape haddock, in order to inform the consumer what the product was like, but to distinguish it from the imported haddock".
Over time, Bennett continued, sales of the real, more expensive haddock dropped and no real haddock has been imported since the '70s, hence the word "Cape" fell away and the hake passed off as "Cape haddock" became known simply as "haddock".
And here's the bit which I find truly fascinating as a justification: "The word (haddock) has therefore been derived historically by local consumer usage, and industry has followed this trend rather than industry leading the way."
So we consumers wanted to have smoked hake passed off as haddock, a fish found only in the North Atlantic, and the industry kindly obliged.
So why not end the charade, finally, and start calling the product what it is?
Bennett's explanation goes like this: because only a few foreigners have complained about the misleading product name, this move would satisfy the foreigners but confuse the South Africans "and our view has always been that we must consider local people as a priority".
How very kind.
The deception is so entrenched that a South African food website states in its glossary of terms that haddock is "similar to cod, with a flaky flesh. It is available fresh or frozen".
To its credit, Sea Harvest comes clean about South African "haddock" on its website.
In answer to the question: "Why is haddock yellow?" in the "frequently asked questions" section, the company states: "Haddock found in the South African market should not be confused with haddock sold abroad. In Europe and America haddock is a specie.
"It is caught primarily in the North Atlantic Ocean. The fillet has large flakes and an almost pinkish natural colour.
"Haddock in South Africa is a traditional name…" and the story of substitution is then explained.
Gideon Volschenk is another reader who is annoyed by the use of the word haddock on packs of smoked, coloured hake.
"How can the said producers sell hake as being haddock… even if they do make the hake yellow to look like traditional smoked haddock?" he asked.
"If this is allowable, then it would presumably also be lawful to sell frozen 'juicy beef burgers' with ingredients on the back of the box listed as being 'aged donkey'."
The long and short of the enduring, legalised deception, it seems, is that it's been going on for so long that it's become a South African tradition, and to suddenly call haddock smoked hake, would terribly confuse consumers.
And so it was that a complaint of misleading advertising, lodged with the Advertising Standards Authority last year by Helene Wood, was dismissed.
I say that it's time we let go of the colonial throw-back term, and created a new tradition of transparency in labelling. What do you think?
Oh yes - Cape Whiting is another name for hake.
So how does smoked hake get its yellow colour when it's packaged as haddock?
The hake fillets are placed for a few minutes in a tank of brine comprising salt, water and a natural colourant called Annato, which comes from the seed of the Bixa Orellana shrub.
They are then removed and cold smoked. And then they are labelled as haddock.
By Wendy Knowler The Star