House bill renews fight against seafood fraud; wins accolades from US fishermen

In some good news from Capitol Hill today, Congressman Ed Markey (D-MA) re-introduced critical legislation aimed at combating rampant seafood mislabeling and moving us towards a traceability system for seafood bought and sold in the United States. He was joined by a bipartisan group of original cosponsors: Walter Jones (R-NC), John Tierney (D-MA), Bill Keating (D-MA), Lois Capps (D-CA) and Jo Bonner (R-AL). Below is our statement commending the new legislation.

Washington, DC—American fishermen lose money every day as a result of mislabeled seafood, but Congress is renewing its efforts to change that. In a bold step towards creating a national seafood traceability system that could combat rampant seafood mislabeling, a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers today re-introduced the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act.

The House legislation, of which Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) is the lead sponsor, has the potential to lay the groundwork for a national seafood traceability system in the United States. It comes in the wake of yet another round of revelations about the extent of seafood mislabeling. A study released by advocacy group Oceana last month found that one-third of 1215 samples analyzed nationwide were mislabeled according to US Food and Drug Administration guidelines.

Matt Tinning, Executive Director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, said today: “Seafood fraud hurts fishermen around the country, from Boston to the Bering Sea. In the face of overwhelming evidence about the scale of the problem, our government must act with urgency. Thankfully, some leaders in Congress have got the memo; today’s bill takes a stand for America’s fishermen.”

Tom Dempsey, Policy Director of the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association in Chatham, MA agrees. “More than ever, consumers are looking to support sustainable American fisheries. But, without transparency in the supply chain, it’s nearly impossible to make that kind of informed decision. Whether it’s horse meat sold as beef or some cheap seafood substitute touted as quality American product, we can’t tolerate fraud when it comes to our food. It’s unfair and unsafe. The SAFE Seafood Act can move us towards a level playing field that America’s commercial fishermen need and consumers deserve.”

Shockingly, Oceana’s study found just seven of 120 samples of red snapper purchased nationwide were correctly labeled, with tests identifying the remaining 113 samples as another fish. Those findings have been greeted with dismay by commercial red snapper fishermen.

“It’s frustrating as hell”, said Donny Waters, a co-founder of Gulf Coast Professional Fishermen, who fishes primarily for red snapper out of Pensacola, FL. “I work hard every day to bring a quality product to American consumers. It’s been shocking to discover how often seafood lovers around the country are victims of a bait and switch. They deserve far better—and so do I.”

Good Seafood Fraud?

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China helps to fuel the international demand for shark fins; and fishermen, in order to meet this demand, illegally kill and waste sharks all over the world every day.  A recent Chinese shark fin scandal, though, has the world saying “meh.”  

The Global Times reports that these fake shark fins on the market are made of gelatin and algin.  “The contents of real shark fins and fake ones made with gelatin are almost the same, and the textures are also the same. Also they will do no harm to humans if they are made with food standard gelatin and algin,” said Gao.  In fact, Gao expands, fake shark fins are better for you because they’re not loaded with heavy metals.  

Could this seafood fraud be good for Chinese seafood lovers and the oceans?  Our crack team will keep you up to date.

The Usual Suspects

121213 Sushi #traceability

Original photo credit: flickr user avlxyz CC BY 2.0

What: “White tuna”, “wild-caught salmon”, and “red snapper”

Where: New York City

How: New York City is the latest metropolitan area found to have a high incidence of seafood mislabeling.

The Story: Oceana continues its series of recent investigations into seafood fraud by testing samples from New York area restaurants and markets. As with Los Angeles and Boston, it may be hard to find correctly marketed seafood in the Big Apple; 39 percent of the 142 samples tested were mislabeled. Large, national chain retailers had the lowest incidence of seafood fraud at 12 percent, while 40 percent of samples tested from smaller, independent retailers were mislabeled.

Researchers found that all of the 16 sushi restaurants included in the study had mislabeled seafood. The most common culprit at sushi bars is marketing the infamous, gastric upset-inducing escolar as “white tuna”, a label that the FDA has established as only appropriate for canned albacore tuna. Language barriers may be the cause of some of these instances of mislabeling, says Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana and an author of the study. “The bottom line is that if you go to a sushi bar, it’s a good idea to ask questions because sushi is an art form. They’re very proud of the fish they serve. So there’s no harm in asking, ‘Well, what is that?’”

Other examples of mislabeling found in the city include farmed Atlantic salmon being sold as wild-caught Pacific salmon, and thirteen different species of fish inaccurately being marketed as red snapper. One fish subbed in for red snapper is tilefish, a fish that the FDA has warned contains high amounts of mercury, and so shouldn’t be consumed by children and pregnant or nursing women. “It’s unacceptable that New York seafood lovers are being duped more than one-third of the time when purchasing certain types of fish,” says Warner.

What We Can Do: With a complex supply chain and various motives for not labeling seafood correctly, finding the source of seafood fraud in the industry is difficult. As long as we continue without a reliable system of seafood traceability in our country, seafood fraud is likely to remain a problem. Until then, ask questions about your seafood. “If vendors don’t know that their customers are demanding this kind of information, they’re going to get away with it forever,” Warner stated.

In the land of cod, not all is as it should be

original photo credit: NOAA

Original photo credit: NOAA

What: Atlantic cod vs. Pacific cod

Where: Boston, Massachusetts

How: Many restaurants and markets in the Boston area are mislabeling seafood (still), but some are blaming the supply chain for their mislabeled menu items.

The Story: The Boston Globe conducted an investigation into seafood sold at Boston area restaurants and markets for the second year in a row, visiting many of the restaurants they tested last year in their award-winning investigation into seafood mislabeling. Even after being called out for mislabeling in last year, many of the restaurants tested this time around were repeat offenders. Out of the 76 samples taken, 58 were found to be mislabeled. In most cases, less expensive fish is being substituted for more costly species, and much of the substitution that takes place uses imported fish.

In several examples, fish being marketed as locally caught Atlantic cod was actually previously-frozen Pacific cod, which many people find less appetizing, and which sells for half the price. Some of the retailers blamed their seafood supplier for the mislabeling, and sent the Globe’s reporters hunting down the murky seafood supply chain looking for answers–and responsibility. Some restaurants did take the results seriously and promised to change their practices and menus, whereas others got defensive. The restaurant manager at Ken’s Steak House was quoted saying, “We’re too busy to deal with such silliness.”

Seafood mislabeling is far from silly, no matter how busy the staff at Boston restaurants may be. As the Globe’s report suggested, mislabeling may stem from different motivations, from trying to maximize profit, wanting to be seen providing a constant supply of hard-to-get seafood, or in response to customer preferences for “local” catch. But lying about where that fish was caught isn’t just a rip off for consumers; it distorts reality for seafood consumers, who might be unaware that their local favorite is in dire straits if it keeps showing up in today’s specials. We shouldn’t be surprised that it may be hard to find fresh Atlantic cod on the East Coast;  Atlantic cod has been overfished for generations, and changing ocean conditions further hamper population growth. Fishermen are dealing with difficult cuts in their quotas, and consumers should know about it.

What We Can Do: With all of the seafood fraud happening in the US and around the world today, the Globe raises a good question: who is to blame? In the end, a poorly regulated seafood industry is the real culprit. Fishermen, retailers, and consumers would all benefit from seafood traceability, which would bring much needed transparency to the seafood supply chain so we can stop pointing fingers, and get back to eating our delicious, well labeled fish.

The name game: seafood mislabeling

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Original photo credit: Christopher Mace

What: Red snapper or Pacific Ocean perch…who knows?

Where: Los Angeles County, California

How: A recent investigation has revealed widespread violations of seafood labeling requirements in LA County.

The Story: The Seafood Task Force, a collaboration among the LA County Department of Public Health, California Department of Health, and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, with help from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, examined seafood from restaurants and markets in the LA area. Some samples were sent for genetic testing to determine the species. Of the 103 samples of seafood, 74 were found to be mislabeled.

The most common violation was the failure to represent the country of origin. When country of origin information was included, it was frequently misrepresented. Another common violation was selling a product labeled as one species, but substituted with a less expensive and sometimes less desirable species. Examples include:

  • Pacific Ocean perch (Pacific rockfish), tilapia, silk snapper, sea bream, and pollock sold as red snapper
  • Fluke (summer flounder) sold as halibut
  • Imitation crab, abalone, and octopus sold as the real product
  • Crawfish sold as lobster

In a couple of cases, escolar was being sold as “white tuna,” a species of fish that does not exist.  Escolar is also called the “ex-lax” of fish by some in the industry because large amounts of it can cause severe gastrointestinal upset, a fact which many consumers are not aware of. Not that they could have avoided it had they tried…

Seafood mislabeling can be costly; and guess who’s paying for it? You may be paying $14.99 per pound for what you think is red snapper, but getting Pacific Ocean perch, which has a value of less than half, at just $6.99 per pound.  Indeed, none of the “red snapper” samples tested by the Seafood Task Force were actually red snapper.  Seafood mislabeling can also be dangerous. Consumers with seafood allergies and pregnant women may have trouble avoiding certain fish and shellfish if they don’t know what is really on their plate.

Don’t feel bad about getting snookered though; it’s easy to be fooled into thinking you as a consumer are purchasing one species of fish when you’re actually getting a totally unrelated species. As seen below in an image provided by Oceana, once a fish is filleted it can be very difficult to distinguish. Can you tell the difference between the properly labeled fillet and the imposter?

Original image credit: Oceana
Correct answers are : 1. Fish on the left is escolar or oilfish. 2. Left is Nile perch. 3. Right is mako shark. 4. Right is rockfish. 5. Left is farmed Atlantic salmon.

What We Can Do: To solve this problem, we need a reliable system of seafood traceability. Not only are consumers being duped, but retailers are as well.  Since the mislabeling can start at the very beginning of the supply chain, with the fishermen and fishing companies, retailers may also be unaware that their product is not what it seems.  We all deserve to know what we are eating, and those in the industry that participate in legal, sustainable fisheries ought to have recognition.

When “fresh” seafood isn’t so fresh

Original photo credit: flickr user timquijano CC BY 2.0

What: “Fresh” Atlantic mackerel…or is it? (Also, tuna, cod, and haddock)

Where: According to the London Times and reported by Global Food Mate, supermarkets in east London, United Kingdom, are selling mackerel and other fish labeled as fresh that may actually have been frozen for almost a year.

How: The London supermarket Stainsbury’s carried Atlantic mackerel that was being marketed as fresh, but the details didn’t add up. The Atlantic mackerel fishery lost its Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) accreditation in March of this year. The blue MSC label indicates that the fish sold comes from a sustainable fishery according to MSC’s set of standards. The mackerel at Stainsbury’s carried the MSC label, and therefore must have been caught prior to March. A small sign next to the iced mackerel indicated in fine print that it was “previously frozen”. Fillets from six other species, such as tuna, cod, and haddock, were labeled “may have been previously frozen,” but consumers were not given information as to how long.

The Story: Frozen seafood being sold as fresh seafood is also a problem here in the United States. Due to short seasons in some fisheries, fishing companies often freeze their catch in huge warehouses and sell it to retailers when there is demand. Retailers may then keep this fish frozen for weeks or months before it is thawed and sold to consumers. Fish from other countries may also travel quite a distance from the fishing grounds to our local supermarkets and dinner tables and must be frozen as it is transported. In fact, fish from overseas (especially Asia) is often treated with carbon monoxide, a gas that prevents the fish from discoloring as it ages and keeps it looking fresh once it is thawed. It is illegal in the European Union, Canada, Japan, and Singapore to sell fish treated with carbon monoxide, but perfectly acceptable here. Nothing against frozen fish; as long as consumers are not led to believe that it’s fresh.

What We Can Do: We need a system of seafood traceability that will tell us what fish we are eating, where it comes from, and when it was caught. Until then, educate yourself about local fishing seasons, and buy fresh, local seafood when available.

Even experienced chefs need traceability to help to avoid seafood fraud

What: Maryland crab….or is it?

Where: Crab purchased at the DC fish market was supposed to be Chesapeake blue crab from Maryland, but it was eventually ID’ed as Indonesian with the help of the consumer’s scientist friend.

How: Deceptive labeling that fooled even a seafood expert. Upon closer examination, the fine print clarified that it was IMPORTED by a Maryland company, but was not in fact Maryland crab.

The story: Barton Seaver is a National Geographic fellow and a chef with a passion for sustainable seafood. He not only cooks seafood really really well, he’s an advocate for sustainable fisheries and healthy coastal communities that provide us awesome things to eat. In short, he knows his fish.

And yet, as he blogged yesterday over at National Geographic, even renowned seafood chefs shopping for seafood at their local fish markets need clear and descriptive labels to avoid seafood fraud. It took the help of a crab scientist in Maryland to point out a small detail that proved this crab to be something other than the chef expected. Read the full story at National Geographic.

The solution: A system that protects seafood consumers and US fishermen who are working to create sustainable domestic fisheries by letting us know what, exactly, we’re buying and eating. #traceability