Alphin Brothers Inc., a Dunn, North Carolina-based seafood processor and wholesale distributor, was recently sentenced in federal court for falsely labeling imported shrimp as wild-caught, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
Alphin Brothers Inc., pleaded guilty to one felony count of making or submitting false records in violation of the Lacey Act in a plea agreement Feb. 10, 2015.
Court documents state that a company employee, who purchased and sold shrimp on the company’s behalf, directed Alphin Brothers employees and employees of another seafood processing facility to falsely label approximately 25,000 pounds of farm-raised imported shrimp as wild-caught product of the United States. The falsely labeled shrimp was later sold by Alphin Brothers in interstate commerce to customers in Louisiana.
Consistent with the plea agreement, the court sentenced Alphin Brothers Inc., to pay a criminal fine of $100,000 and to forfeit approximately 21,450 pounds of shrimp. The company also will serve three years of probation, including a special condition requiring the company to implement a training program to educate its employees on federal labeling requirements as they relate to business activities at the company.
Federal regulations require seafood retailers to provide customers with notice of the country of origin and the method of production, wild-caught or farm-raised, of shrimp and other shellfish. These COOL regulations (for “country of origin labeling”) allow country of origin and method of production information to be provided in any format as long as it is placed in a conspicuous location so that it will likely be read and understood by a customer under normal circumstances.
Many shrimp processors and wholesale distributors, including Alphin Brothers Inc., print country of origin and/or method of production information directly on packaging, such as boxes, intended for retail sale.
Under COOL regulations, shrimp may be labeled as “product of the United States” only if they were harvested and processed in the U.S. or by a U.S.-flagged vessel and have not undergone any substantial transformation outside the U.S. Packing, repacking, thawing, freezing, cleaning, peeling, deveining, grading, cooking, or soaking shrimp in sodium tripolyphosphate solution does not constitute a substantial transformation under the COOL regulations.
The Lacey Act is a federal law making it illegal to make or submit any false record, account, or label for, or any false identification of, any fish or wildlife that has been, or is, intended to be imported, transported, purchased or received from any foreign country, or transported in interstate or foreign commerce. The maximum penalties for a felony violation of the Lacey Act include up to five years of imprisonment and $250,000 in fines for individual defendants and up to $500,000 in fines for corporate defendants.
The case was investigated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement, with assistance from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The case was prosecuted by the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
The enforcement action was praised by the Better Seafood Board (BSB), which was established by the National Fisheries Institute to help report seafood fraud.
“This case is an example of coordinated law enforcement, both state and federal, working together with the tools they already have to crack down on fish fraud,” Lisa Wedding, BSB secretary, said in a statement.
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