The topic of seafood labeling and mislabeling can be controversial, especially when seafood is intentionally mislabeled as a way to cut corners with costs or inflate prices. A common example of this worst type of seafood fraud happens frequently with Red Snapper- which is often replaced with cheaper and poorer quality skinned tilapia fillets. Aside from being misleading to the consumer, this practice of seafood mislabeling can also be dangerous in this age of increasing food allergies and related diet concerns. The Boston Globe recently published articles and conducted a subsequent series of investigation to bring light to the issue of seafood mislabeling. You can read more about the Globe’s Seafood Fraud initiative here.
The Globe’s investigation into local restaurants and retailers was highly effective at bringing attention to this important issue. In response, Turner’s thought it important to continue this dialogue and sponsored a series of presentations at the Maritime Heritage Center in Gloucester earlier this year. Along with the Globe Writer who broke these stories, experts from NOAA and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute also spoke on this important issue. A common consensus was reached over the course of these meetings that there is a need to standardize seafood labeling, although it remains unclear how to enforce stricter label protocols. One such approach is to incorporate standardized labeling protocols into each retailer or wholesaler’s HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points) plans, which are required documents for any entity seeking to sell seafood for public consumption.
While it is important to be transparent with the public and expose instances of seafood fraud, it is also important to recognize that it is not always easy for seafood retailers and restaurants to follow a strict regimen in labeling and marketing their seafood. As noted above, most species of seafood have multiple names that change across regions which can prevent challenges in creating menus and marketing fresh seafood. For example, all species of small flatfish caught in this region are allowed by FDA regulations to be marketed as flounder or sole with one exception- dabs. Dabs, which looks and tastes very similar to all of its small flatfish relatives, must be marketed as either dabs or plaice. This presents a challenge for seafood retailers, as many consumers are unfamiliar with these labels and might be reluctant to try it from a menu. To further illustrate this point, one restaurant that was “exposed” by the Globe’s investigation was accused of fraud because a server mistakenly identified scrod as cod, when it was actually haddock. Although the menu specified that scrod can either be cod or haddock, the restaurant was still accused of misleading consumers. Scrod is a marketing term used for small cod and haddock, and it seems that a lack of information or simple mistake was more to blame in this instance than an actual case of fraud. The key is to find a balance between exposing those who are intentionally mislabeling for profit verses those who would benefit from better educating their staff or making menus more clear.
According to Jim Turner, “the percent of mislabeling reported by the Globe certainly calls for the need for standardizing. To me the primary receiver of the seafood intended for consumption (unloader or importer) should bear the burden of correctly determining and labeling the species. This is because many species are extremely hard to distinguish once they have been processed.” Officially, Turner’s Seafood appeals to the FDA’s Acceptable Market Names list when labeling and marketing its seafood. (Check out more info on this list here.) In addition to using this standard and nationally accepted list, Turner’s also works directly with its servers and other restaurant staff during pre-meals to ensure they are educated on the items that appear on the menu.