WASHINGTON — While 84% of the seafood eaten in the United States is imported, only 2% is inspected, and less than 0.001% is inspected specifically for fraud, according to “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health,” a new report from Oceana, an international advocacy group focused on protecting the world's oceans. This lack of oversight has led to a variety of problems, including short-weighting, falsification of import/export documents during international transshipment and deliberate substitution and mislabeling of different species of fish, Oceana said.
Citing recent studies, the group argues that several popular species such as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod may be mislabeled 25% to 70% of the time, with less expensive fish substituted. Farmed salmon, for example, might be sold to a processor or distributor — and subsequently retailer or restaurant — as wild salmon, or pollock might be substituted for cod. Mislabeling is particularly difficult to detect with processed or frozen products, due to ice glazing.
In many cases, these substitutions simply allow fishing operations to charge more for their catch. But, illegal fishing operations also leverage the current complexity of foreign export markets to combine illegally caught fish with legal catches during processing and distribution.
“Seafood fraud puts consumers and restaurants trying to make honest, eco-friendly choices at a disadvantage,” Ellen Kassoff Gray, general manager and co-owner of the restaurants Watershed and Equinox in Washington, during a press announcement regarding Oceana's new Stop Seafood Fraud campaign. “We need the U.S. government to provide us with the tools to make good decisions for our oceans, our pocketbooks and our health. It's just good business.”
Improved traceability protocols and enhanced inspections could help solve the problem, and Oceana issued a call to the U.S. government to make combating seafood fraud more of a priority by implementing existing laws and improving coordination and information sharing among federal agencies.
“We can track organic bananas back to packing stations on farms in Central and Latin America, yet consumers are given little to no information about one of the most popular foods in the United States — seafood,” Michael Hirshfield, senior vice president for Oceana North America and chief scientist for the group, said during the press conference. “With imports representing the vast majority of the seafood eaten in the United States, it's more important than ever to know what we are eating and where, when and how it was caught.”
Any comprehensive effort will likely require help from the government. In recent years, several groups have worked to address this increase in fraudulent activity in the seafood industry. In 2007, the National Fisheries Institute launched an Economic Integrity Initiative in an effort to combat short-weighting, transshipment fraud and species substitution. At the time, NFI President John Connelly told SN that he had received emails, forwarded to him by concerned suppliers, in which foreign operations were offering to pack product at 80% to 90% net weight, with the remainder of the shipment as ice and other filler. In one extreme example, an offer of 65% net weight was received.
In addition, in January and February 2010, a group of state agencies, led by the Weights and Measures division of Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection revealed short-weighting to be a widespread problem with frozen seafood sold at retail.