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Q&A: Investigating Fish Fraud

Mon, 11/07/2011 - 3:44am
Lisa Weddig, Director of Regulatory & Technical Affairs, National Fisheries Institute and Secretary, Better Seafood Board

Seafood fraud has been in the news recently, as a new report indicates that many retailers and restaurants are intentionally mislabeling their seafood. Food Manufacturing spoke with Lisa Weddig of the Better Seafood Bureau (BSB), part of the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), about this issue and its implications on the economy and food safety.

Q: Please give a brief history of the BSB and how it became involved in investigating and preventing fish fraud.

A: The BSB was formed in 2007 to support the commitment of NFI members to abide by industry principles of economic integrity by not selling seafood that is short in weight or count, that has the wrong name or that has been transshipped from one country to another to circumvent duties and tariffs.

The BSB, an organization governed independently from NFI, provides the mechanism for industry's partners in the supply chain — restaurants, retail operations and further manufacturers — to report suppliers committing economic fraud. Seafood buyers who have unresolved issues with their suppliers for selling short weight or otherwise mislabeled products are encouraged to contact the BSB. Suppliers who cheat customers cheat the entire industry. Suppliers, restaurants and retailers who follow the rules often get penalized in the marketplace. Fair and lawful business practices are essential for ensuring consumer confidence in seafood; we believe the entire supply chain is responsible for maintaining this confidence.

Q: How does the BSB investigate fraud in the seafood industry?

A: BSB receives complaints and tips to its toll free call center at 1-866-956-4BSB (1-866-956-4272), and I often receive emails directly or indirectly highlighting fraud or potential cases of fraud. From these complaints we conduct direct outreach to the companies whose economic integrity is being questioned and, depending on the outcome of our initial direct efforts, we alert regulators and even foreign governments to concerns we have.    

Q: What are the dangers of fish fraud to consumers?

A: This is where the broken window theory comes in. You have to ask yourself, as a business, if an operation I am buying fish from is willing to commit fraud, what else are they willing to do? If they’re cutting corners on economic integrity issues, what might they be doing with regard to food safety?

Q: Which types of fish are most often faked?

A: There aren’t any studies yet on which species are the most commonly mislabeled, but it is essential to appreciate the dynamic of the type of fraud we are dealing with. And for consumers to understand that, at its core, it’s an economic issue and not a sustainability issue. In fact, even an elementary understanding of the mislabeling scenarios with which we are presented would reveal suggestions that sustainability is at the heart of this fraud actually turn the economics of what is really happening on its head. For retailers and restaurants to mislabel more prized, less abundant species as cheaper, more common species means the establishment would be purposely losing money on a fish product in order to misrepresent it as another. This is simply not happening.  We feel it is crucial that people understand this simple fact for fear that we might lose sight of the actual challenge with which we are faced.

Q: What is the BSB’s relationship with the FDA, and how does the organization work with the agency to help ensure the authenticity of fish?

A: BSB reports cases of suspected fraud to the FDA and has worked with them as well as state weights and measures offices to encourage enforcement of the law. The BSB supports a fully funded FDA. The FDA is the regulator and is in charge of stamping out fish fraud, but finds it hard to do its job without proper funding.

Q: What does the BSB do to work with restaurants and retailers to help ensure seafood is authentic?

A: The BSB is a business-to-business organization, so we will work with restaurants and retailers who fear a supplier might be defrauding them. We mediate supply chain discussions and, if necessary, arrange for audits.  Likewise, we will contact retailers and restaurants that are suspected of mislabeling seafood on menus if there are concerns raised about end users. We don’t share our reporting protocols to protect companies that do not want to be identified.

Q: How widespread is the problem?

A: No one really knows, but there is the potential that many of the recent mainstream media reports on species substitution have over reported the potential amount. Many of these stories target restaurants and retail establishments that sell species that are more commonly mislabeled so they’re fishing, if you will, in a target rich environment. If a reporter goes out and tests something labeled “white tuna” at 10 sushi restaurants and finds seven are mislabeled, that doesn’t mean 70 percent of all seafood is mislabeled. With that said, it’s important to note that one is one too many, and we are sponsoring university research right now to try to get an estimate of just how much seafood fraud is costing the industry and, ultimately, consumers.

Interview by Lindsey Coblentz, Associate Editor

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