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Widespread Seafood Fraud

November 2, 2011

At the H Mart supermarket in Burlington, crimson snapper was substituted for the more expensive red snapper. And escolar, which can cause gastrointestinal problems, took the place of white tuna fillets. The store blamed a supplier for the mix-up.

The Boston Globe has published a spectacular investigation into seafood fraud in Massachusetts.  The investigation shows that the fraud is due to decision-making by both restaurants and distributors.   Here’s the rock solid intro:

The sliver of raw fish sold as white tuna at Skipjack’s in Foxborough was actually escolar, an oily, cheaper species banned in Japan because it can make people sick. The Alaskan butterfish at celebrity chef Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger in Wellesley was really sablefish, traditionally a staple at Jewish delicatessens, not upscale dining establishments.

At Chau Chow Seafood Restaurant in Dorchester, the $23 flounder fillet turned out to be a Vietnamese catfish known as swai – nutritionally inferior and often priced under $4 a pound.

Those were among the findings of a five-month Globe investigation into the mislabeling of fish. It showed that Massachusetts consumers routinely and unwittingly overpay for less desirable, sometimes undesirable, species – or buy seafood that is simply not what it is advertised to be. In many cases, the fish was caught thousands of miles away and frozen, not hauled in by local fishermen, as the menu claimed. It may be perfectly palatable – just not what the customer ordered. But sometimes mislabeled seafood can cause allergic reactions, violate dietary restrictions, or contain chemicals banned in the United States.

So what does the typical restaurant-level fraud look like?  Here’s a good description of decision-making at Bertucci’s, which is representative of other restaurants:

But the Bertucci’s purchasing team actually ordered cape capensis – another name for hake. No one thought it was a problem, and even the supplier, PanaPesca USA in Pembroke, didn’t intervene after a company vice president saw its hake presented as cod on the Bertucci’s menu.

And the suppliers?  Check out this whopper:

Doyle’s Cafe owner Gerry Burke said he thought he was serving Atlantic cod at his Jamaica Plain pub because it arrived fresh on ice. But the fish was actually caught off Alaska, shipped in freezer containers for about six weeks to New Bedford, and then thawed and sent out across the region. Burke consulted his supplier after being contacted by the Globe and said there was a misunderstanding.

The Globe rightly points out that all this is made possible by a lax regulatory environment.  Unlike meat and poultry, seafood in the U.S. is poorly regulated:

The FDA has primary responsibility for ensuring that fish is safe, sanitary, and properly labeled, but the agency has not made seafood labeling a priority, according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report. Imported seafood accounts for 86 percent of the fish consumed by Americans, but the FDA examines only about 2 percent of imported seafood annually, and its main inspection program focuses on food safety, not potential economic fraud.

Growing concern over seafood substitution, however, has prompted FDA officials to develop a pilot program that will use new DNA technology to identify mislabeled fish.

Two other agencies share responsibility for detecting and preventing seafood fraud – US Customs and Border Protection and the NOAA Fisheries Service – but there is little collaboration between them and the FDA, the GAO noted.

This spotty oversight contrasts sharply with monitoring of the meat and poultry industries, which is solely the responsibility of the US Department of Agriculture. The USDA has 8,000 inspectors at 6,200 US processing plants. The agency allows only about 30 other countries to export certain meat and poultry products here – and all must have a federal regulatory system for meat safety that is equivalent to that of the United States.

Nearly half of all samples were found to be mislabeled, and the samples were found to come from just a handful of distributors.  What’s more, these distributors have some serious scale.  For example:

True World Foods, which did not return repeated messages seeking comment, supplies fish to about 8,000 restaurants, hotels, country clubs, cruise ships, and specialty retail stores across the United States, according to the company’s website.

So what do you think?  Does this seem like a national scandal?

It sure seems that way to me.  It’s time for a serious reform of our regulations and some hard penalties for violators.  This is a crime!  (The Globe’s analysis of regulations suggests that there really aren’t any penalties in place for this behavior, but I’ll have to check on that.)

I’ll also add that such a change could also help combat illegal fishing.  From the looks of the DNA results database, most of the fraudulent fish was sourced from trash fish or aquaculture, which are likely legal sources.  BUT, even if the sources of the fraudulent fish are legal,  new requirements for seafood traceability would greatly reduce the opportunities for laundering illegal fish as well.

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