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Seafood Fraud and Federal Action

March 20, 2015


There’s a nice piece over at The Atlantic on seafood fraud and the recent Presidential initiative to tackle it. 

Here’s an excerpt on the costs and benefits of fraud:

Who stands to gain from passing off low-grade seafood as upscale entrees? To avoid an anti-dumping tariff of about 65 percent instated for low-priced imports, foreign seafood businesses use fraudulent species to throw off inspectors; one case of Asian catfish posing as grouper saved the perpetrator more than $60 million in tariffs. And once these shipments make it past customs, they can go on to fetch large amounts of money. Catfish can be sold as grouper, for example, for as much as four times its typical price.

While this puts restaurants at risk—unwittingly selling a fraudulent product is never good publicity—the harms of seafood fraud fall disproportionately on consumers. Besides spending more for a lower-value product, they may be paying for the health risks that come with unchecked fish. Federal officials at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have discovered FDA-banned antimicrobial agents and high levels of mercury in imported grouper. The Oceana report also found that 84 percent of white tuna sampleswere actually escolar—a fish that causes digestive problems—in disguise.

On federal action:

So what’s being done about our leaky seafood system? Warner’s study exposed the magnitude of the problem, and now the Obama administration is taking steps to combat fraud. One of the most ambitious proposals this year will be for federal agencies, such as NOAA and the FDA, to work together more closely on seafood-fraud investigations. And with a new set of tools on the way—including Grouperchek, a tested device soon to be available for commercial use later this year—the government and the industry appear closer than ever to fighting seafood mislabeling.

Researchers unanimously blame foreign fisheries for seafood fraud. Ninety percent of our fish is imported from countries with loose aquaculture laws, such as Thailand, Indonesia, Canada, China, Ecuador, and Vietnam. Some seafood from these countries may come mislabeled from unregulated fish farms. The most notorious offenders are Thailand and Vietnam, a country with polluted fish farms along the Mekong River teeming with Asian catfish ripe for export.

With so much fraud beginning overseas, U.S. regulators are turning their attention to foreign imports. Last December, a presidential task force made its first recommendations for how the government should fight seafood fraud. It advocated for more thorough international collaboration on labeling, and described an urgent need for better seafood tracking starting this year. The fish industry currently suffers from very little oversight and a non-transparent supply chain, says Warner. “What we ask for is electronic traceability that follows fish [through the chain],” she adds.

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