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NOAA plans traceability regs for seafood importers

Later this year about 600 international fish brokers and 2,000 importers are going to be required to provide more robust paper trails for selected species to curb so-called fish fraud and reduce human health risks.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) unveiled the new requirements for imported seafood Thursday. The regulations are the product of a presidential task force.

NOAA Fisheries spokesmen said during a conference call Thursday that the “U.S. seafood traceability program” will require seafood importers to document the “catch” to first “landfall” in the United States for certain species. The regulated species were chosen based on:

  • principals of enforcement capability;
  • species misrepresentation;
  • catch documents;
  • complexity of the chain of custody and processing;
  • mislabeling or other misrepresentation; and
  • human health risks

On the “at risk” species list are: abalone, Atlantic cod, blue crab, dolphinfish, grouper, red king crab, Pacific cod, red snapper, sea cucumber, sharks, shrimp, swordfish, albacore tuna, bigeye tuna, skipjack tuna and yellowfin tuna.

The criteria and the list were chosen by the presidential task force known as the National Ocean Committee to Combat Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud. It was the task force that last year recommended a “harvest to entry in the U.S.” approach to traceability

The at risk list represents about 40 percent of the seafood that enters the U.S. when measured by value. NOAA Fisheries spokesman said the agency eventually wants to include all seafood species imported into the U.S.

The Seafood Import Monitoring Program, as it is officially known, is published today in the Federal Register.

NOAA Fisheries has no estimate how much compliance with the new regulatory program will cost seafood importers. However, it does not involve any of the technologies often associated with traceability in the food industry — none of the requirements involve bar codes, quick response markings, or radio frequency devices, to name a few. And NOAA spokesmen said they also did not want to associate the new program with any specific study or report about the costs of fish fraud in the U.S.

Oceana, the international group that advocates for healthy oceans, contends seafood fraud occurs in 20 percent to 32 percent of the wild-caught seafood crossing into the U.S. because of “pirate” fishing. Oceana says it has found about 50 different types of seafood mislabeled with as many as 150 substitute species.

The potential ill gotten monetary gains for importers come when cheaper species can be passed off for the more expensive ones. Consumers pay the higher prices because they don’t know any better. Oceana found about one-third of the labels on fish, shrimp, crab cakes and salmon sold at retail markets and restaurants in the U.S. are different than label or menu listings.

The new regulations for seafood importers are being published in the Federal Register for a 60-day comment period. NOAA Fisheries spokesmen said the Final Rule will likely be published in the fall.

Beth Lowell, Oceana’s senior campaign director, said the proposed rule is a “first step in fighting illegal fishing and seafood fraud,” which she said was welcomed.

“However, the steps outlined will not fully solve these problems,” Lowell added. “We encourage the administration to include these three components in the final rule: it needs to apply to all seafood; products need to be traced throughout the entire supply chain to final point of sale; and if there is a phase-in implementation process, there must be a concrete timeline to expand the rule to all species and extend traceability from boat to plate in the final rule.”

Lowell said illegal fishing is “a dirty business” that includes human trafficking, forced labor and other illegal activity. More than 1,800 species of seafood are available in the U.S. Lowell says: “limiting traceability to only a group of ‘at risk’ seafood leaves the rest of the seafood supply unguarded. She also said stopping the new traceability requirements at the “first landing” does not go far enough in stopping fish fraud.

The National Fisheries Institute, which represents seafood importers, has not yet responded to the proposed rule. In the past, the seafood industry has said existing law is sufficient to bring fish fraud under control.

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