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Q&A: Seafood Fraud: Danger In The Water

Tue, 07/05/2011 - 4:45am
Beth Lowell, Campaign Director, Oceana

The Food and Drug Administration recently released a report indicating its intent to increase the safety of imported foods. With about 84 percent of seafood eaten in the U.S. being imported, this segment of the food industry stands to benefit greatly from increased import regulations. Food Manufacturing spoke with Beth Lowell of Oceana about the importance of increased inspections for seafood imports and how food manufacturers can ensure the safety and quality of the seafood they use.

Q: What is seafood fraud?

A: Seafood fraud can come in many different forms — from mislabeling fish and falsifying documents to adding too much ice to packaging. The bottom-line with seafood fraud is that consumers are being ripped off.

Q: How often does seafood fraud occur, and what dangers does this pose to consumers?

A: Recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for fish like red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, disguising species that are less desirable, cheaper or more readily available.

Seafood fraud impacts consumers in a number of ways. First, consumers are getting ripped off when they pay for a high value fish and are sold something different. Second, seafood fraud can negatively impact human health. When seafood is mislabeled, a broader range of potential contaminants, pathogens and allergens may be covered up. And finally, seafood fraud hurts the health of our oceans. With seafood mislabeling comes the laundering of illegal fish throughout the system. Illegal fish are caught with disregard to scientifically set catch limits, protections for marine wildlife or important ocean habitat. Seafood fraud also impacts the perception that people have of our oceans. If “red snapper” is available at every fish counter, supermarket and restaurant, then it is hard to imagine that the species is in trouble. Additionally, consumers have a harder time using market-based conservation measures like wallet cards if the species they think they are buying is, instead, something else.

Q: How much is seafood fraud costing consumers and the food industry?

A: Unfortunately, the cumulative economic loss from seafood fraud is unknown, but even small changes in price add up to large losses for retailers and consumers. Fish caught illegally evade inspection fees, permits and other business costs that impact the price of responsibly caught seafood.

For example, Vietnamese catfish were sold as grouper to evade tariffs of more than $63 million in 2010. Prices for catfish sold as grouper were up to $25 per meal in Kansas City, Baltimore and Tampa. At least ten million pounds of frozen catfish were sold as grouper and sole in the U.S. in just one year.

Q: Eight-four percent of seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported, but only about 2 percent is inspected. Why is so little of our imported seafood inspected?

A: Oceana’s new report entitled Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health found that while 84 percent of the seafood eaten in the U.S. is imported, only two percent is currently inspected and less than 0.001 percent specifically for fraud. No federal agency has made stopping seafood fraud a priority, which is reflected in their budgets and the amount of resources they put into seafood fraud detection.

Q: What is Oceana doing to prevent seafood fraud?

A: In late May, Oceana launched a new campaign to Stop Seafood Fraud. Our efforts will include urging federal agencies to make stopping seafood fraud a priority and pushing Congress to enact legislation to address the issue. Oceana will also be conducting seafood testing in regions throughout the U.S. as well as educating consumers about seafood fraud and ways to avoid it.

Our seafood is following an increasingly complex path from fishing vessel to processor to distributor and, ultimately, our plates. Oceana is working to ensure that the seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legal and honestly labeled, including requiring a traceability scheme where information such as when, where and how a fish is caught follows it throughout the supply chain — from boat to plate — allowing consumers to make more informed decisions about the food they eat. 

Q: What is the Commercial Seafood Consumer Protection Act and how could it help prevent seafood fraud?

A: The Commercial Seafood Consumer Protection Act would be a first step to stopping seafood fraud in the United States. Consumers have a right to know what they are eating and where, when and how it was caught.

There are simply too many federal agencies doing too little to address seafood fraud. This important act will direct federal agencies to work more closely together, leading to better coordinated responses on seafood safety, labeling and fraud.

In 2009, the Government Accountability Office issued a report entitled Seafood Fraud: FDA Program Changes and Better Collaboration among Key Federal Agencies Could Improve Detection and Prevention. The Act would implement many of the report’s recommendations.

Q: What should food manufacturers do to ensure that they are using safe seafood products in their processes?

A: Food manufacturers should do their best to know where the seafood they are buying is coming from and that it was legally caught. If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. They should also support seafood traceability efforts that allow information about a fish and its origin to pass through processing. Only with commitments from everyone involved in the supply chain can we help ensure that the seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legal and honestly labeled.

Interview By Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor

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