By Leah Powley
Seafood fraud in the Mid-Atlantic region is causing new concern among area watermen and their Congressional representatives. According to crab fishermen in Maryland and Virginia, imported crabmeat is being packaged in the United States, relabeled, and then sold as a “product of the U.S.” This mislabeling—illegal under U.S. law—has gathered attention from the area’s Congressional representatives, who are calling on President Obama to address this seafood fraud.
Mislabeling of imported crabmeat has real impacts on American consumers and Chesapeake Bay crab fishermen who try sell their locally-caught and honestly-labeled product. Without information on where the crab was actually caught, this fraud misleads consumers and creates unjust competition for Chesapeake Bay watermen and their genuine, locally-caught crabmeat. As Virginia’s seafood industry alone is valued at over $500 million per year, this practice is likely causing serious monetary harm for an industry that is important to the local economy.
Imported crab—even if it is processed and repackaged in an American facility—cannot be labeled solely as a U.S. product. Under U.S. country-of-origin labeling laws, seafood has to be caught or farmed in U.S. waters or caught by a U.S. vessel and not have undergone “substantial transformation” (such as filleting or cooking) outside the U.S. for seafood to be labeled as “product of the United States.”
Fortunately, the Obama administration announced a new commitment to fight seafood fraud and illegal fishing in June. President Obama announced the creation of a new task force, comprised of representatives from multiple government agencies, that will develop recommendations to address these challenges. To protect Chesapeake Bay communities and fishermen, Virginia Senators Mark Warner (D) and Tim Kaine (D), Representative Rob Wittman (R), and Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski (D) are offering their support for the plan and asking that the task force craft recommendations to specifically address crab mislabeling.
Oceana strongly supports the President’s new commitment to fighting seafood fraud and illegal fishing, as we have worked for years to encourage increased transparency and traceability in the seafood supply chain. In 2013, Oceana released a nationwide study that demonstrated just how pervasive the problem of seafood fraud is in the United States: Out of the 1,200 seafood samples tested, 33 percent were mislabeled. Establishing traceability throughout the supply chain would help prevent illegally-caught seafood from entering the market, ensure that fishermen receive fair prices for their products, and provide consumers with additional information and confidence in the seafood they purchase.
Whether it is blue crab in the Chesapeake Bay or wild salmon in Alaska, traceability—coupled with proper enforcement and verification mechanisms—is the best way to ensure that our seafood is safe, legally caught, and honestly labeled.