Last year, the seafood industry was hit with a quick succession of negative reports regarding seafood fraud. In the spring, environmental advocacy group Oceana issued a report called “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health,” which cited research indicating that species such as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod are mislabeled as often as 25% to 70% of the time.
Then, in October, the Boston Globe and Consumers Union — publisher of Consumer Reports — each released the results of separate investigations that used DNA tests in an effort to quantify mislabeling. The results were, to put it bluntly, awful.
The Boston Globe gathered samples from 134 restaurants, grocery stores and seafood markets throughout New England, and found that almost half were mislabeled. The Consumers Union tested 190 pieces of seafood at stores and restaurants in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, and found that almost 20% were mislabeled.
The problem was particularly prevalent with pricier fish. While all of the samples of Chilean sea bass, coho salmon and bluefin and ahi tuna tested by Consumers Union were correctly labeled, 100% of the samples of lemon sole were misidentified, and over half of the red snapper samples were mislabeled as well. In the Boston Globe test, 100% of the white tuna samples tested were actually less expensive fish like escolar.
“The crux of the issue is generally economic fraud,” Chuck Anderson, a former retailer and current director of new business and retail for Boston-based Sousa Seafood. Mislabeling and species substitution is much more common with more expensive species, such as red snapper, grouper or wild salmon, he added. Therefore, any investigation that targets higher-priced items is likely to find a higher incidence of fraud.
Anderson said he believes that the recent media attention — including the 2011 reports and, more recently, a February 2012 television segment on the Dr. Oz show — has helped by raising awareness of the problem.
Gavin Gibbons, director of media relations for the National Fisheries Institute, agreed, noting that while it is difficult to assess the level of fraud at any specific time, incidents appear to decline when the issue is in the public eye.
“The more we hear about it in the media, and the more light is shined on it, the fewer complaints we get about it,” Gibbons said.
“When it’s talked about, and when it’s exposed, people are less likely to do it, or less likely to try it. When the laws, rules and regulations surrounding [fraud] are enforced, they’re even less likely to try it. That’s why we’ve supported [the U.S. Food and Drug Administration] as much as we have, in trying to encourage them to fill what has been a regulatory vacuum.”
The federal government recently put more emphasis on enforcement, with the FDA equipping five field laboratories with their own DNA sequencing equipment to test a sampling of imported and domestically sourced fish before shipment to retail.
And, partly in response to the Boston Globe report, the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, the state’s Department of Public Health, and the state’s Department of Fish and Games’ Division of Marine Fisheries are currently discussing the potential development of a state-run DNA testing system, in conjunction with the staff of Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology.
Currently, the most common DNA tests take too long and are too expensive to be practical as an industry-wide solution. Researchers are working on ways to make the tests cheaper and quicker, and use of these systems will likely become more common during the decade ahead. But, until that happens, species substitution will continue to be a problem.
Anderson and Gibbons encouraged retailers and restaurant owners to work with suppliers who have agreed to adhere to a pledge developed by the Better Seafood Board, an organization formed by the NFI in 2007 in an effort to curb fraudulent practices such as species substitution, as well as short-weighting, where sellers misrepresent the weight of fish packed or glazed in ice, and illegal transshipment, where fishermen avoid tariffs by first shipping fish to a country not subject to those tariffs.
“The more sellers that are part of that group, the more options buyers have to buy from people they know are doing it right, and doing it well,” Anderson said.
Yet even when working with BSB suppliers, problems can slip through the cracks. Buyers must remain vigilant, applying a few basic rules of thumb to ensure that they and their customers aren’t victims of fraud, Anderson added.
“Number one, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is,” Anderson said. “That’s the tell-tale sign … If somebody has grouper for 50 cents less than the competition, maybe they’re sourcing better or maybe they’re buying in volume. If somebody has grouper for four dollars less per pound, there’s something going on — short weighting, species substitution, or both.”
Second, retailers should try to find direct suppliers of more expensive species whenever possible, rather than using brokers or middlemen.
“If I’m going to buy Lane snapper, where does it come from? Panama, Ecuador and Costa Rica. Who are the fishing companies that produce that, who are the importers? I want to go to them. [Buying direct] saves money, but it’s also easier to trace the supply chain of the product.”
And, third, employees who receive shipments — including buyers, warehouse inspectors and seafood managers — should be trained to recognize problems.
A hands-on training program should incorporate resources like the Integrated Taxonomic Identification System at itis.gov, the FDA’s online Seafood List and its "Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia," which includes photos of whole fish and filets identified by species.
Even Wikipedia can work as a resource, although Anderson noted that the articles and photos on that site are often limited to the most common seafood species. (Also, see “Fighting Fraud,” next page, for Anderson’s list of the most common species substitutions.)
“It’s still a problem,” Anderson said. “And, until we have inexpensive DNA testing that’s done by the buyers or by FDA or by everybody, there’s going to be some degree of this problem.”
To avoid becoming a victim of seafood fraud, former retailer and current director of new business and retail for Boston-based Sousa Seafood Chuck Anderson suggests that buyers develop relationships with suppliers that have a reputation for integrity.
Firms that have signed the National Fisheries Institute’s Better Seafood Board pledge are a good place to start, but it’s also important to visit suppliers and ask how they check their incoming fish for correct species.
In addition, he suggested developing a plan that includes acceptable countries of origin for all species specifications, and buying from suppliers as close to the source as possible. Ask suppliers to provide written assurance that every fish has been inspected and confirmed as the correct species before shipment, and implement a training program for employees that receive orders. This training program should incorporate resources such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia, which includes online photos of whole fish and filets, and the Integrated Taxonomic Identification System at www.itis.gov, to identify species names from common names.
Anderson also provided a list of some of the most commonly substituted species, along with their likely substitutes:
• Cod (Atlantic): Haddock, Pacific cod, hake, whiting
• Haddock: Pacific cod, hake
• Red snapper: Tilapia, other snappers, pangasius
• Grouper: Pangasius, tilapia, sebaste species of snappers, drum
• Halibut: Escolar, drum
• Chilean sea bass: Escolar, drum
• White tuna: Escolar, marlin
• Striped bass: Hybrid striped bass
• Lemon sole: Yellowtail flounder, dab flounder
• Fresh sole: Yellowtail flounder, dab flounder, PF flathead sole, PF yellowfin sole, arrowtooth flounder
• Mako shark: Porbeagle shark
• Wild king salmon: Farmed kings, farmed Atlantic salmon
• Wild coho salmon: Good color chum salmon, pink salmon
• Key West pink shrimp: Various pink or brown species
• U.S. Gulf shrimp: Farm-raised white shrimp
• King crab: Spiny crab from Argentina and other origins
• Snow crab: Deep water crab, spider crab
• Cold water lobster tails: Warm water tails from Oman, other origins
• Florida stone crab: Chilean stone crab, Jonah crab
• Dungeness crab: Red crab, Jonah crab, rock crab