The Massachusetts Legislature is currently considering three bills relating to seafood mislabeling, following in the footsteps of Washington state, which just last month enacted its own legislation on seafood mislabeling. I traveled to Boston earlier this week to testify before the Joint Committee on Public Health in support of these bills, which are important for giving consumers fuller and more accurate information about the seafood they buy.
House bill 1946 would prohibit the mislabeling of three particular species popular in the state: Atlantic halibut, red snapper, and grey sole. Under the legislation, those species cannot be sold with these common names unless they are the true species identified under the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Seafood List, which documents the acceptable market names for species sold in the U.S. While Oceana did not find any incidence of mislabeling for Atlantic halibut in our 2011 Boston-area seafood testing, we did find two instances in which grey sole was actually yellowtail flounder. For red snapper, we couldn’t find any of the fish to purchase (perhaps because we sampled only in grocery stores, not restaurants), so we instead chose to sample vermilion snapper and were surprised to find that four of the six were actually red snapper, a much more expensive fish. The Boston Globe, however, found in their 2011 seafood fraud investigation that 24 of the 26 samples they tested were, in fact, not red snapper but other, less-prized, cheaper fish. House bill 1946 would help crack down on this problem by requiring accurate labeling of this vulnerable species.
The bill would also implement a state ban on the sale of escolar, which is an oily white fish that is often sold under the innocuous name of “white tuna” and causes gastrointestinal distress if more than a few ounces are consumed. The FDA has issued an advisory for the consumption of escolar, yet most consumers do not know that is what they are eating when they purchase “white tuna” – a species that technically doesn’t exist. Only canned tuna can legally be called “white tuna” (typically skipjack or albacore). In Oceana’s recent nationwide study on seafood fraud, however, fish sold as “white tuna” was one of the most commonly mislabeled types we tested, with 84 percent turning out to be escolar.
House bill 1947 and Senate bill 1059 would simply require an advisory on the label of particular saltwater fish such as tuna, mackerel, swordfish, grouper, striped bass, and bluefish, warning consumers about the safety and consumption risk factors. These fish can be quite large and long-lived and therefore tend to accumulate more toxins like mercury. The FDA warns certain vulnerable populations such as young children, pregnant women, and women of child-bearing age to limit their consumption of these fish. It’s unrealistic to expect that consumers will know this information unless it is immediately available, either on the product label or at their fish counter, and Oceana strongly supports having such transparency.
The committee held a hearing on 23 bills in all, covering a wide range of food labeling and safety issues that drew hundreds of spectators and speakers. Most attendees were concerned with bills relating to the labeling of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), and there were some fiery exchanges between activists and industry representatives. While there is no timeline for action on the seafood labeling bills, the lack of visible opposition augurs well for the committee to quickly report them favorably and move them to consideration by the full House and Senate.
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