Seafood follows a long path from the boat to the dinner plate. The exchanges from fishermen through processing, distribution and final sale present many opportunities for dishonest actors to sell mislabeled or fraudulent seafood in the United States. Fraudulent practices range from adding ice to tip the scales in favor of the seller, to blatantly mislabeling species or falsifying documents. Using DNA testing, Oceana has uncovered examples of mislabeling in fish, shrimp and crab cakes in retail markets and restaurants nationwide. On average, one-third of the seafood examined in each study was not the product listed on the label or menu. Mislabeling allows for threatened species to be sold as more sustainable, expensive varieties to be replaced with cheaper alternatives, and safe fish substituted for those that can make people sick.
To address these issues, the Presidential Task Force on Combatting Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing and Seafood Fraud issued final recommendations and an action plan earlier this year. Most recently, the task force released a proposed list of “at-risk” species that are intended to be the focus of the first phase of implementing some of the measures. Popular seafood such as blue crab and shrimp, which were featured in Oceana’s reports, were included on the list. However, the Task Force has indicated that the first phase of proposed documentation and traceability requirements may stop at the first point of sale within the United States. Tracing the origins of imported seafood is an important step to closing our market to illegal fishing, especially since we import about 90 percent of our seafood in this country, but seafood fraud doesn’t stop at the border. In fact, two recent federal investigations uncovered the mislabeling of blue crab and shrimp by seafood companies in the United States. These cases serve as examples for why traceability needs to be implemented throughout the entire seafood supply chain to help stop seafood fraud.
In June, a Virginia seafood company that sells crab to major retailers both in Virginia as well as out of state, is believed to have sold foreign crab labeled as Atlantic blue crab. After initial testing of the company’s products from retail stores, investigators discovered two of the three containers tested contained only swimming crab, with the third container containing a mixture. The swimming crabs identified in these samples are not found in U.S. waters, but the containers were labeled as “Product of USA.” Further testing of the company’s crab meat yielded similar results, prompting grocers to pull the products from their shelves and to discontinue sourcing from the company. A staple of the Mid-Atlantic region, true Atlantic blue crab not only costs more than imported swimming crab, but is also a more sustainable choice that supports a local economy. This type of mislabeling hurts local watermen who depend on selling their crab to make a living, and undermines consumers who want to make informed choices.
In another recent case, a North Carolina-based seafood processor and wholesale distributer pleaded guilty to falsely labeling shrimp and misleading customers into buying a cheaper product for more than it was worth. According to court documents, employees were instructed to label roughly 25,000 pounds of farm-raised imported shrimp as wild-caught U.S. shrimp. The environmental impacts and health risks from farmed shrimp can differ drastically from wild caught shrimp. Farm-raised, imported shrimp has been associated with high levels of antibiotic and pesticide usage, exposure to Salmonella and E. coli bacteria, and the destruction of mangrove forests. The North Carolina company was fined $100,000 and will be placed under probation for three years for violating laws which stipulate the country of origin must be clearly and accurately reflected on packing. Mislabeled shrimp not only risks the health of consumers, but also undercuts the market for shrimp fishermen in Gulf of Mexico states where the fraudulent product was sold.
An increasingly complex and obscure seafood supply chain means species substitution can occur at any point of sale, even after products enter the U.S. Seafood fraud has potentially harmful consequences for public health and local economies, and also prevents consumers from making sustainable seafood choices. Since it is difficult to identify if fraud is occurring on the boat, during processing, distribution, at the retail counter or at restaurants, it is imperative that accurate information about seafood follow the product every step of the way. Requiring traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S. throughout the entire supply chain would ensure that all of our seafood is safe, legally caught, and honestly labeled.