By ISAAC WOLF
Scripps Howard News Service
March 26, 2009
Unscrupulous seafood producers and distributors are committing "fish fraud," says a new report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. And there's minimal oversight to make sure that you are actually getting the fish you've paid for.
To beef up their bottom lines, the investigators found, seafood merchants cheat customers in three main ways: By providing portions that are too small, giving the wrong species of fish, or sidestepping country-specific taxes by first shipping the seafood through intermediate countries.
With Americans consuming 5 billion pounds of seafood in 2007, fish fraud has the potential for significant financial and health damage. How much fish fraud is occurring is unclear, since data is slim, said Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group representing seafood producers.
The Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for ensuring that U.S. food is safe and properly labeled, checks only 2 percent imported seafood annually, according to the GAO report.
"The FDA needs to step up and do its job," Gibbons said.
The FDA did not return a call to comment.
But even when the FDA inspects fish imports, it's not looking for signs of fraud, Gibbons said. "They are checking for food-safety issues," Gibbons said. "They don't stop shipments and say, 'is this what it says it is?'"
Joe Stensgar, a fish wholesaler in Gig Harbor, Wash., said he stopped seeing problems about 10 years ago. That's when Stensgar, who owns Airfresh Seafoods of Alaska, said he switched to local suppliers.
"Certainly there are problems," Stensgar said. "We're just lucky to have not seen them."
There's no overall price tag on fish fraud; even the fisheries institute says the financial magnitude of the problem is uncounted. Improperly labeled shrimp from China in one instance alone resulted in the possible loss of $132 million anti-dumping duties, according to the GAO report.
The difficulty of detecting mislabeled seafood depends on how processed it is, Gibbons said. A fish that's been filleted and packaged would be more difficult to identify than a fish that's still whole.
In 2007, two people became sick after eating what they thought was monkfish. They had actually eaten puffer fish, which contains a potentially deadly toxin called tetrodotoxin, according to the GAO report.
"I am really shocked that people would mix up puffer fish and monkfish," said Bonnie Axelson, owner of Seafood Merchants, in Vernon Hills, Ill., a Chicago suburb. "It's not a fish to be taken lightly at all."
Seafood Merchants, which supplies fish to top Chicago restaurants, imports high-end Dover sole and smoked salmon from Europe. Axelson said she steers clear of fish from Asia.
She said most types of fish are distinguishable. "All these fish look very different," Axelson said. "Maybe when you get into basses -- particularly when you get into fillets -- they might not look so different."
It's understandable that FDA officials check such a small percentage of fish shipments, Axelson said. Whenever FDA inspectors visit her facility, "they always say how stretched out they are," she said. "These guys don't have much time to spend with anyone."
Some 80 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. imported from other countries. It's not clear if mislabeling is occurring in other countries or the United States, Gibbons said.
In at least one instance, a company tried to skirt tax on Chinese shrimp by sending it first through Malaysia, according to the report. But the company wasn't just trying to evade taxes: It was sidestepping U.S. government efforts to keep the shrimp out of the country. The incident made federal officials concerned that business fraud could lead to health concerns.
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