BOSTON — Seafood mislabeling is something the industry and government take very seriously and steps must be taken to stop it, panelists at the International Boston Seafood Show last week stressed in multiple educational seminars.
Price Chopper Supermarkets ’ decision to DNA test its seafood last year was a focus of the panel “Combating Seafood Substitution and Mislabeling: Facts, Fictions and Initiatives.”
“Our purpose in commissioning a course of scientifically liable DNA testing on our seafood, in addition to our own internal controls, is to provide quality assurances to customers, and beyond those offered by other purveyors,” said Lee French, vice president of seafood merchandising.
He said the DNA testing was a matter of doing “the right thing.”
“We believe that Price Chopper should be the leader and that we should raise the bar for all supermarkets,” said French.
“I think Mrs. Smith and Mr. Jones trust us that we’re not doing the wrong thing, that we’re not substituting product, that we’re not mislabeling product, that we do know where the product’s coming from, that we are involved in sustainability,” he added.
Beyond deceiving customers, seafood fraud at supermarkets can also carry legal ramifications. A retailer that unknowingly sells mislabeled fish may not be subject to criminal prosecution, but it could end up the subject of a civil suit, said Jonathan Tycko, Tycko and Zavareei, a law firm specializing in fraud cases.
“So maybe you have circumstances where a retailer is selling a product in good faith, believing it is what they say it is, but somewhere else in the supply chain there has been mislabeling or substitution. And the companies that are involved in that whole supply chain are potential defendants, including potentially, in some states, the retailer. Even if the retailer believes that the product is what they say it is,” said Tycko.
French said he thinks it is retailers who will make a difference when it comes to seafood fraud. He has told suppliers that Price Chopper will not allow any substitution, and the penalties for doing so would be “extremely severe.”
Price Chopper also mandates that all its suppliers use Trace Register to track fish in detail through the supply chain, otherwise the retailer will not do business with them.
“Because I question why, if you can’t participate in Trace Register, and have some traceability program and also work with us on sustainability, what else is behind the scenes?” said French.
Panelists at a separate session on seafood fraud reflected on the effect of the recent seafood fraud study by ocean conservation group Oceana, which found one-third of fish is mislabeled in the U.S.
“It’s not, ‘Oops, I mislabeled that container.’ It’s full-on fraud. And what it does is really creates a mistrust of the product itself,” said Robert Chandler, production supervisor, Steve Connelly Seafood Co.
Read more: Seafood Fraud Bill Could Impact Retailers 
Others worried the high percentage of fraud found in such studies misleads consumers.
“People are afraid that half of everything on the market is mislabeled, and that’s certainly not correct. Certainly they’re targeting those things that are more likely to be substituted, so that’s an important distinction,” said Peter Koufopoulos, chief of the seafood processing and technology policy branch, U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
He added that the FDA has been conducting its own testing at the wholesale and distribution level to try to find out where in the supply chain substitution might be occurring, but those data are still being compiled.
A seafood fraud bill reintroduced by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., earlier this month would make traceability a requirement throughout the supply chain, while also going after those who committed fraud.
Matthew Strickler, one of the authors of the bill, sat on the panel with Price Chopper’s French. Strickler said he had had conversations with fishermen, industry representatives and nonprofit groups to see “how we could kind of skin this cat a different way and put in place some legislation that dealt with the problem without being too burdensome on the industry.”
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