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Transcript: Seafood Fraud—Detection and Prevention

Welcome to "On the Line", a NOAA Fisheries podcast.

[News clips playing]

Male: ...listen to this before your next order. A new report says many fish providers are playing a shell game with suppliers.

Female: There seems to be some fish fraud going on in five months investigating several types of fish ordered...

Male: ...to gourmet stores. Well they found almost a quarter of that seafood was mislabeled or misidentified.

Host: We’re all aware of common types of fraud like identity theft and investment scams. But did you ever think you’d have to worry about being swindled with shrimp, snapper, or that master of disguise, sea bass. When you purchase seafood, you expect that it will be what the label says it is. Unfortunately, studies and recent investigations are finding that this is not always the case. Various types of seafood fraud are being committed along the seafood chain. But what exactly is seafood fraud and what can we as consumers do about it?

Our investigation takes us to Boston, Massachusetts and the largest annual seafood event in North America, the recently-held 2013 International Boston Seafood Show. Nearly 30,000 seafood industry people gathered to buy and sell seafood and related products. We caught up with Steven Wilson, Chief Quality Officer with NOAA Fisheries Seafood Inspection Program, who had just appeared on a panel discussion about species substitution mislabeling and fraud. We asked Steven Wilson what exactly is seafood fraud?

Steven Wilson: Seafood fraud is anytime the consumer or the buyer is buying any sort of seafood product in any amount, when in fact what they’re buying is not what they paid for.

Host: Seafood fraud, the old bait and switch game. Once a fish is filleted and skinned, it’s pretty difficult, if not impossible, to determine what species it is. Some sellers take advantage of this and substitute a low-valued species for more expensive fish such as passing off catfish as grouper. But substitution is not the only kind of fish fraud.

Steven Wilson: At the border sometimes there’s a plant that’s trying to get out of paying the high tariffs on a particular species so they’ll label it something else and pay a lower fee to get it into the country. And there’s also the fraud of not necessarily putting the right net weights on the product. Or, it could be a food safety issue. But essentially, it’s as simple as, you’re just not getting what you pay for.

Host: When you ask for a cut of beef at the butcher shop and the butcher hands you a duck, you know something is up. But what about telling the difference with fish? Steven Wilson says that can be difficult for the average consumer.

Steven Wilson: A consumer possibly spotting an illegal fish is a difficult process. It’s very simple if you think you’re buying salmon and it’s a white fish and you get a tilapia. It’s very easy to know at that point that you’re not buying what you think you’re buying. But when it gets down to it, most of us don’t know simply by looking at the fish because it’s already processed. It’s in a fillet form, the skin is off, you don’t see the head or the gills. If you’re buying a whole fish, it’s much easier, but you still have to educate yourself. And this is one of the issues we keep pushing the FishWatch website for NOAA because we want you to educate yourself as to the various species that are out there—hundreds and hundreds of species being sold in the U.S. market.

Host: The scam at the scales is lesser known but far more common. It’s called short-weighting and it occurs when processors misrepresent the weight of a seafood product through practices such as over-glazing, soaking, or too much breading.

Steven Wilson: When you’re buying frozen fish and frozen fish is a very good buy. It lasts longer—it’s been often processed on ships. But you're going to see vendors or anywhere along the supply chain, someone adding water somehow to that product. So, you think you’re buying a pound of shrimp. When you weigh it at home with the ice on it, it weighs 20 ounces instead of 16, but when you thaw it out and eat it, you’re only getting 12 ounces.

Host: What should a consumer do if they spot a fraud fish?

Steven Wilson: If they spot a fraud fish, most likely consumers are gonna see it at the retail market, the grocery store, or at the restaurant. That’s not a federal issue. That’s a state or local issue so contact the state or local authorities—either net weights or measures depending on the issue, or just state food control.

Host: Monty Berg is a Supervisory Consumer Safety Officer with NOAA Fisheries Seafood Inspection Tampa Office. And he has similar advice for consumers.

Monty Berg: The first thing I would do is bring it to the attention of the store manager. The other thing you really want to look for, is if the price is a little bit less than what you think it should be or what you’re accustomed to paying. The old saying, “if it’s too good to be true it probably is”—I’ve experienced this some in Florida with a lady that called and said, “I got snapper fillets for this and I don’t think they’re snapper.” And I said you can’t buy snapper for that price.

The second thing I would do, is I would offer to contact the state regulatory agency. I might even buy the fish and offer it up to the state regulatory agency to see if there is economic fraud going on. Your states will protect you. It is their job and they want to do it. You are the last inspector. I mean we’re looking at imports, exports, processing plants, but you are the last inspector. And if you see something that doesn’t look right, chances are it’s not.

Host: Steven and Monty have seen all kinds of fish fraud and there are stiff penalties for seafood fraud.

Steven Wilson: The penalties range in these fraud issues depending on what the fraud it. If it’s at tariff, the tariffs can go not only higher but extreme financial penalties including jail time. You might have the same thing for species substitution at the restaurant level, but it’s not quite as high. They tend to have to have more counts to show that it’s a true issue. If it’s a food safety issue, then that’s a crime versus a misdemeanor. Right now the industry, in general, is trying to work with the government to do voluntary compliance. Everyone would prefer this be done in a voluntary way versus a crime.

Host: Monty has some encouraging words.

Monty Berg: I think the future is good. The inspection program at the U.S. Department of Commerce NOAA Fisheries has seen dramatic increases in our inspected poundage. And the bottom line is we know what we’re doing. Remember that you’re the last inspector. Enjoy fish. There are masses of really, really good seafood purveyors out there. They want you to buy the product. They want you to enjoy it because they want you to come back and buy another piece of fish. But remember that you’re the last inspector. If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t. Enjoy fish.

Host: Seafood fraud happens for a variety of reasons from simple misunderstanding or lack of information to blatantly deceiving consumers to increase profits. Your best defense is to stay educated about seafood fraud. Visit FishWatch.gov for more information, and remember if that fish story seems a little too fishy, it probably is.

For "On the Line", I’m Bill Zahner.


[Music playing]

You have been listening to the NOAA Fisheries’ podcast, "On the Line". Join us next time for another first-hand look at the people and the science behind managing our nation’s fisheries. For more information, visit NOAA Fisheries at www.NOAA.gov.

"On the Line" is a production of the NOAA Fisheries Office of Communications.
 

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