Fighting Fish Fraud

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Fighting Fish Fraud


’Tis the season for fresh seafood, and with it this year, a flurry a headline-generating reports about mislabeled seafood.

Earlier this week, NBC’s Today Show featured a segment on seafood mislabeling, which gave props to the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) and its Better Seafood Board (BSB) – whose members promise to label seafood according to state and federal laws – in the wake of a new study by conservation group Oceana, which accused restaurants and fish markets nationwide, including in New York City, of flagrant mislabeling.

Specifically, the Oceana report found that 58 percent of samples conducted in New York eating establishments were inaccurately labeled, in most cases with cheaper fish being substituted and sold as more expensive species, such as halibut and snapper instead being passed off for blueline tilefish. Sushi restaurants, meanwhile, were found to be selling escolar -- a fish well known for its laxative properties – instead of white tuna.

The report also identified related health risks of mislabeled fish, such as those with high mercury content that place pregnant women at risk.

Created in 2007, all NFI members are required to join its watchdog adjunct, BSB, according to NFI’s president John Connelly, while being interviewed by NBC correspondent Anne Thompson during the Today segment. “The companies that do things right feel a disadvantage when either their competitors or their customers mislabel a product for financial gain. It’s just wrong.”

So what can folks do to protect themselves from seafood mislabeling at a restaurant or point-of-sale? BSB’s Lisa Weddig advises consumers to “ask their restaurant or retailer if they are a member of the Better Seafood Board and if the answer is no, they should ask why not? More and more mainstream media is recognizing the BSB, its logo and its members as part of the solution to a widely reported-on challenge facing not only the seafood community but restaurants and retailers. BSB members are proud to be part of the solution.”

Meanwhile, a similar investigation by the Boston Globe recently identified a number of Boston-area restaurants for mislabeling fish. While the BSB praised the newspaper for its reporting that called attention to the hot topic, the group blasted it for blaming a Massachusetts supplier, which the BSB did not find mislabeled anything and in turn, describes it as “A fraud upon Boston Globe readers.”

In an editorial written that the paper refused to publish, Weddig said: “When the Boston Globe began its efforts to help root out fish fraud by investigating and reporting on economic integrity in the seafood industry more than a year ago, it was at the forefront of shining a light on an issue many consumers knew little about. The series was initially a good example of how investigative journalism can help drive regulators while policing producers, processors, restaurants and retailers alike. Unfortunately, with its latest installment on this subject the Globe missed the mark.”

Specifically, NFI objected to inappropriately singling out the supplier, despite that its invoices and practices met all FDA requirements.

Suffice to say, the Globe article has dealt a serious blow to the New England seafood community at the height of a crucial selling season and serves to further fuel suspicions a growing number of consumers have about transparency and truth in labeling, be it with fresh fish, corn chips or cereal.

Indeed, as history reveals, when consumers are frustrated and confused, they vote with their wallets and stop buying.

For this very important reason, I join many seafood industry experts who support uniform national seafood fraud laws and equally strict enforcement, and in turn urge progressive grocers to do the same. In the meantime, NFI and other seafood organizations like ASMI have ample tips and training resources available to help front-line associates remain informed and aware of their responsiblity as a trusted source for seafood-seeking consumers. By making the investments in proper staff training and education, supermarkets can help ensure that seafood department sales will remain healthy and prosperous in 2013 and beyond.