Report to Congress cites lack of FDA resources and poor inter-agency cooperation
by Craig Weatherby
A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) finds that the feds aren't doing nearly enough to prevent seafood mislabeling and other forms of fraud.
In 2005, the Customs Service discovered that Chinese shrimp—barred from importation because of high levels of chemical residues—were being shipped through Indonesia to evade the ban.
And in 2007, imported puffer fish—whose organs contain a deadly nerve poison—was mislabeled as monkfish, and people became ill.
More commonly, a fish importer or wholesaler will simply mislabel a lower-cost species in order to pad profits.
As Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek told USA Today, her agency is hearing about retailers selling cheap fish as more expensive species “with increasing frequency” (Weise E 2009).
Four years ago, we alerted The New York Times that some vendors in Manhattan's famed Fulton Fish Market were labeling and selling farmed salmon as costlier wild Alaskan salmon.
Our tip led to a Times investigation that verified our observations (see “Buyer Beware: Vital Choice Discovers 'Wild' Salmon Scam”) and prompted two subsequent investigations with similar outcomes (see “Consumer Watchdog Finds 'Wild' Salmon Scam Remains Routine” and “Salmon Fraud Persists”).
The new GAO report says that seafood companies are routinely offered mislabeled or otherwise fraudulent products. But last year, when the National Fisheries Institute—a major seafood trade association—reported several fraud solicitations to the FDA the agency took no action.
And consumers who report mislabeled seafood to the FDA usually receive no response, because the agency lacks the staff and funds to investigate fraud.
GAO report faults poor coordination and FDA underfunding
Lat month's GAO report finds that the three federal agencies with primary responsibilities for seafood inspection are failing to prevent fraud (GAO 2009):
- The Customs Service reviews seafood imports to detect schemes to avoid paying the appropriate customs duties
- The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) runs a voluntary program for retailers, to verify the weight and species of seafood being purchased. The NMFS allegedly inspects about one-third of the seafood consumed in the United States.
- The Food and Drug Administration only examines about two percent of imported seafood for safety violations, and does not address fraud at all.
As the GAO report says, “Because of the limited scope of FDA's seafood oversight program… consumers have less assurance that the seafood they purchase is correctly labeled” (GAO 2009).
The FDA told the GAO investigators that it focuses on food safety and undertakes few fraud-related activities.
But, as the 2007 pufferfish incident shows, fraud can result in serious food safety risks.
The GAO found very poor coordination among the federal agencies that share responsibility for detecting and preventing seafood fraud: “…they have not identified a common goal, established joint strategies, or agreed on roles and responsibilities… the agencies have not taken advantage of opportunities to share information” (GAO 2009).
The solution? Know your supplier
Since the federal government is doing a pretty spotty job of protecting consumers from increasingly common “bait-and-switch” seafood fraud, what can consumers do?
One approach is to patronize honest, seafood-savvy retailers.
Most fish retailers are honest, but couldn't detect fraud even if they wanted to.
Supermarket buyers rarely see the fish they contract to purchase, and seafood counters are often staffed by butchers and other inexpert folks who simply can't spot mislabeled species.
When it comes to selecting wild salmon, it can be hard for anyone but an expert to see the telltale signs of farm-raised fish.
Our buyers—founder/president Randy Hartnell and CFO Dave Hamburg—possess more than 50 years' combined experience as salmon fishermen. And because they know our suppliers and supply chain intimately, they'd be very hard to fool.
But we also take measures to provide our customers with independent assurance of the source of our wild Pacific seafood.
The independent Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) uses chain-of-custody audit trails to guarantee the identity and source of these Vital Choice products, which come from fisheries certified sustainable by the MSC:
- Alaskan Salmon (Sockeye, Silver, and King—all frozen and many canned* products
- Oregon Pink Shrimp
- Smoked Alaskan Salmon (Sockeye and King)
- Sockeye Salmon Sausage & Burgers
- Alaskan Sockeye Salmon Oil
- Pouched Alaskan Sockeye Salmon
*Four of our Wild Red™ canned salmon products contain Alaskan Sockeye: Traditional 7.5 and 3.75 oz, No Salt Added 7.5 oz, and Smoked 5.5 oz. The remaining Wild Red™ products contain Canadian Sockeye from the British Columbian fishery, which has applied to the MSC for certified-sustainable status.
We are currently in the process of complying with the rigorous procedures required to obtain chain-of-custody origin certification for our Alaskan Sablefish and Halibut. In the meantime, you can rest assured that we know exactly who is catching and processing these species for us!
- United States Government Accountability Office (GAO). Seafood Fraud: FDA Program Changes and Better Collaboration among Key Federal Agencies Could Improve Detection and Prevention. February 2009. Accessed online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d09258.pdf
- United States General Accounting Office (GAO). Food Safety: FDA's Imported Seafood Safety Program Shows Some Progress, but Further Improvements Are Needed. January 2004. Accessed online at http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d04246.pdf
- Weise E. GAO study: Fraudulent fish easily slip into the food stream. USA TODAY, March 22, 2009. Accessed online at http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/2009-03-22-fish-fraud_N.htm