New federal initiatives to combat fisheries fraud


In the name of sustainability and consumer safety, the US Customs & Border Protection has taken strides this month towards creating a new tracking system and stricter enforcement measures for seafood fraud.  Annually, as much as $20 billion of the seafood sold here in the United States goes un-regulated or under-regulated.  Much of that is seafood that is marketed as another, more desirable fish.  So what does that mean for you- the consumer??? Aside from the fact that no one likes to be lied to– especially when spending your hard earned money– seafood fraud and species mislabeling poses serious risks to your health and to the health of the environment.

On the individual level, seafood that is mislabeled runs the risk of causing serious allergic reactions in those who have sensitivities to certain kinds of seafood.  Furthermore, if a seafood retailer is willing to mislabel and intentionally mislead the public into thinking they are buying something they are not, they may also be willing to chemically treat or otherwise alter that product to make it look more enticing on the shelf.   With little to no regard for the FDA regulations that govern the purchase and sale of these food products, the consumer could unwillingly and unknowingly be ingesting a wide range of harmful substances with the potential for negative impacts to their health.

Environmentally, one of the main incentives for mislabeling a species for sale is to make a profit off a type of fish that is restricted  due to its compromised sustainability status.  Aside from directly risking the consumer’s health, this is perhaps the worst type of seafood fraud, as it takes more from the environment that it can sustain.  It also serves to undermine the hard work and diligence of responsible fishermen and policy makers who strictly follow all the rules in the hopes of rebuilding fish stocks and preserving the health of our oceans for current and future generations.

And this is not an isolated issue- a study by the research group Oceana found that as much as 1/3 of 1200 samples in a study were mislabeled as a different species.  However, it is important to note that from the retailer’s perspective, following FDA labeling guidelines is not always as easy or straight-forward as it sounds. 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.

As noted in a previous blog post, The Boston Globe recently launched a journalistic investigation into this very topic of seafood fraud. Although it is a critical issue that deserves the proper attention, it is important again to reiterate that this issue is not black and white.  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.

This month, the New York Times reported on a new agenda unrolled by the Obama administration that involves “a plan to crack down on the multibillion-dollar global black market in seafood, an effort that would try to trace a fish’s story from where it was caught to how it was shipped.”

from the article:

“The Obama administration is committed to working to ensure that America’s fishing industry remains the heart and soul of coastal communities across the country,” said Bruce Andrews, the deputy secretary of commerce. “The task force’s new strategic plan will aggressively implement recommendations to guarantee that U.S. fishing fleets remain competitive in the global economy.”

Turner’s Seafood remains committed to keeping the public informed on this important issue of seafood fraud. You can read the whole NYT article on the Obama Administration’s latest efforts to combat this problem by clicking here.