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Seafood Fraud Bill Could Impact Retailers

BOSTON — A seafood fraud bill reintroduced to the House of Representatives by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) this month could affect retailers with the imposition of new traceability requirements for fish.

The Safety and Fraud Enforcement (SAFE) for Seafood Act, originally submitted in July 2012, would require information currently collected from U.S. fishermen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — like species, where the fish was caught and what gear was used — to “follow the fish” up through the supply chain until reaching the consumer, with similar documentation required for imported fish.

Matthew Strickler, a member of Markey’s staff and one of the bill’s authors, presented the basics of the bill and discussed some of its implications during a panel discussion on seafood mislabeling at the International Boston Seafood Show on March 10.

Read more: The Future of Supermarket Seafood

“We're not telling anyone in the supply chain how they have to do this [traceability requirement]. It’s just this information needs to go through the chain. You can do it with something like Gulf [Seafood] Trace. You can do it with your own system that logs information electronically. You can do it with a piece of paper, for all we care, whatever floats your boat,” said Strickler, as long as the information is available to the consumer.

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.”

The bill would ensure that those who engage in seafood mislabeling would be punished while helping honest retailers, said Strickler.

“And we want to make sure that folks … who are doing the right thing, are getting rewarded for that and aren’t going up against people in the marketplace who might be trying to cut corners,” he said.

A “whole harmless” provision of the bill also would protect retailers that unknowingly sell mislabeled fish. 

“If you’re able to trace the documentation back through the supply chain and find out where that actual fraud occurred, so that that’s the person who is subject to penalties under the law,” said Strickler.

Another section of the SAFE Seafood Act deals with improving coordination between NOAA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, including updating the FDA’s seafood list of acceptable market names. Currently, multiple fish can be sold under the same name under the FDA’s standards.

Although not addressed directly, sustainability is a component of the bill because it makes it easier for consumers to see where the fish they eat originate, Strickler said. Consumers can then choose whether they want to purchase a species that may not be farmed or caught sustainably.

Read more: Retailers Talk Sustainable Aquaculture

Some panelists applauded the bill’s efforts.

“This will be a large step forward for traceability and accountability to make sure that we're eliminating fish substitutions. It does a lot of the things that we're looking for to improve the problem,” said Gib Brogan of Oceana, the ocean conservation group that recently released a study on widespread seafood mislabeling.

Others questioned its potential efficacy.

Fraud protection laws already exist, said Jonathan Tycko, Tycko and Zavareei LLP, a law firm specializing in fraud cases, but enforcement is an issue due to lack of funding allocated to the agencies in charge of investigation.

“So even if this bill becomes law, there has to be some money put behind it and somebody on the ground who’s actually checking,” said Tycko.

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