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NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement Tackles Seafood Fraud

NOAA special agents check some of the 33,000 cans of tuna NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement donated to the Community Food Bank in New Jersey in December 2009. The cans were seized from a Peruvian company that attempted to import tuna mislabeled as bonito, a different species of fish, into the U.S. in violation of the Lacey Act. This Act prohibits the failure to accurately mark and label shipments of fish and wildlife. The tuna was tested for safety by NOAA's National Seafood Inspection Laboratory before it was donated to the food bank. There are no safety concerns with the product.

"Product substitution not only defrauds the consumer and robs him of the ability to make informed choices, but it also harms law-abiding fishermen and domestic fisheries. The substitution of a cheaper, less desirable fish for a more expensive fish in higher demand undercuts the price a fisherman will be paid for the true product.”

-Todd Dubois
Assistant Director,
NOAA's Office of Law Enforcement

 

The Science Behind...Seafood Forensics

   

November 15, 2012 

From the halls of Congress to high-end restaurants, seafood fraud has been getting a lot of attention:

NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement has been tackling this problem for 
years, resulting in years of prison time and millions of dollars in fines and 
restitution for those who skirt the system.

NOAA’s agents and officers 
reduce the risk of illegal or mislabeled fish entering the U.S. market, where it presents a cheaper, poorer
quality and sometimes less safe alternative than fish caught legally by domestic fishermen,” said Todd Dubois, assistant director of NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and lead on the agency’s false labeling working group. “Each of these cases involves thousands of man-hours to investigate and requires the unraveling of complex corporate accounting records and the penetration of well-entrenched criminal conspiracies. We have worked for years, and continue to work with, the U.S. Department of Justice to bring these criminals to justice.”  

NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement investigates mislabeling under the 
Lacey Act, which makes it unlawful for a person to falsely identify any fish 
that has been, or is intended to be, imported, sold, purchased or received 
from any foreign country, or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.

Seafood fraud is more than mislabeling fish—it’s an ongoing challenge. 
According to the latest Fisheries of the United States, we import approximately 91 percent of our seafood. Further complicating matters: 54 percent of the world's fish production is processed at sea or soon after landing, which in most cases renders the species unidentifiable without forensics and the farther a fish gets from harvest, the more likely it is to be mislabeled.

“If the FDA issues a recall on a product and it’s mislabeled, it may not be 
possible to trace the product back to where it originated,” said Acting Assistant Agent in Charge Ron Messa.

Mislabeling Affects Fishermen and Consumers

The most common false labeling NOAA agents and officers see are species substitution and country of origin. Individuals and 
companies might do this to avoid costly tariffs and/or for other economic gain, such as passing off a cheaper product for a more 
expensive one.

“Product substitution not only defrauds the consumer and robs him of the ability to make informed choices, but it also harms law-
abiding fishermen and domestic fisheries,” Dubois explained. “The substitution of a cheaper, less desirable fish for a more 
expensive fish in higher demand undercuts the price a fisherman will be paid for the true product.”

In one instance, farm-raised Asian catfish were falsely labeled as grouper or sole and then sold to 65 different wholesale customers, including restaurants and supermarkets. Not only did the defendants avoid paying $145,625 of anti-dumping duties that were 
put in place to protect domestic fishermen from cheaper product flooding the market, but some of the imported fish tested positive for the fungicide malachite green and the antibiotic Enrofloxacin, both of which are considered health hazards and banned from U.S.  food products.


The labels on these boxes of imported haddock have been relabeled from “origin: China” to “origin: USA.” MKG Provisions Inc., located in Miami,
Florida, pled guilty in January 2011 and was sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to pay a $20,000 criminal fine for mislabeling the imported haddock, in violation of the Lacey Act. In June 2010, MKG purchased 10,600 pounds of haddock from a Boston-area supplier that had imported the haddock from China; MKG then falsely re-boxed and relabeled some of the fish as “Product of USA,” and sold it to a South Florida customer.

 

“People save their money all year long to come on vacation down here and take their families to restaurants,” said Assistant 
Special Agent in Charge Gregg Houghaboom of Florida, who was the lead agent on that case. “They want a grouper sandwich or a grouper basket, which is what this area is known for, and they were getting cheated out of it.”

Even worse, mislabeled seafood can make consumers sick. People have become ill after unknowingly eating species such as escolar, which causes gastrointestinal distress, and pufferfish, which contains the deadly neurotoxin tetrodotoxin.


Bags, shown in the trash here, identify raw frozen shrimp as product of Thailand, while the new bags mislabel the same shrimp as product of Panama. Walter Schoepf, Karl Degiacomiand Culinary Specialties Inc.of Tampa, Florida, pled guilty in August to conspiracy to commit violations of the Lacey Act and will be sentenced later this month. The defendants – in concert with Richard Stowell, United Seafood Inc., Adrian Vela, and Sea Food Center – conspired to violate the Lacey Act by mislabeling and selling approximately 500,000 pounds of shrimp. The shrimp, valued in excess of $400,000, was ultimately sold to supermarkets in the northeastern United States. Stowell and United pled guilty and were sentenced for their role in the conspiracy on April 27, 2011, while Vela and Sea Food Center pled guilty and were sentenced for their role in the conspiracy on November 21, 2011.


A Strategic Approach to Enforcing Fishing Regulations

While NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement continues to investigate individual mislabeling cases, the agency also has a working 
group of 10 agents from around the country to determine the most effective and efficient way to address the larger issue.

“Targeting seafood fraud generally across the nation far exceeds the available resources and capabilities of NOAA and the other 
agencies with jurisdiction in this arena,” Dubois said. “The input of this working group will feed into a broader, national interagency effort to investigate major seafood fraud at various levels of the seafood supply chain.”

The working group has put together a survey for industry and non-government groups to help agents assess the level major 
mislabeling happens, but observant consumers also can play a role in helping NOAA identify seafood fraud. The group has established a new email address—safe.seafood@noaa.gov—where the public can send information on possible mislabeling violations, 
in addition to its longtime toll-free hotline, 1-800-853-1964.

“Always inquire with the chef about what the product is and where it’s from, and if it doesn’t line up, let us know,” said Special Agent Nick Call. “If a deal looks too good to be true, you’re probably getting ripped off.”