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Oceana going overboard on fish fraud, according to seafood industry group

The National Fisheries Institute (NFI) is calling into question both the findings and motives of the latest fish fraud study by Oceana, a global environmental group. The action marks a break between the two groups since they previously were largely in sync with one another over the worldwide problem of fish fraud, which is where lesser-value species are marketed as higher-value ones.

fishingboat_406x250NFI claims that by finding 20 percent of all seafood mislabeled globally, Oceana’s latest report is both overstating the problem and unnecessarily calling for an expanded regulatory bureaucracy when enforcement of existing laws is all that is needed.

NFI, a trade association representing the seafood industry with a core mission of sustainability, charges that the environmental group has turned to “misleading hyperbole.”

“Mislabeling is fraud and fraud is illegal, period,” reads the NFI statement released on its website. “That’s why NFI members are all required to be members of the Better Seafood Board, the only seafood industry-led economic integrity effort. Our members are at the forefront of getting rid of fish fraud.”

Oceana’s study is misleading because it looked too heavily at commonly mislabeled species, the group asserts.

“Oceana’s focus on the most often mislabeled species distorts its findings by design. It is a common technique that ironically perpetuates a fraud on the readers of these reports,” the NFI statement adds.

“Oceana’s continued focus on expanded regulation illustrates a fundamental lack of understanding when it comes to fish fraud and what works in policing it. The laws, rules and regulations we need are already on the books. This is an issue of enforcement. Whether it’s the City Attorney in San Diego going after menu mislabeling or the U.S. Attorney’s office in North Carolina securing felony mislabeling convictions, investigation and prosecution is the answer, not more laws,” it continues.

Oceana, in NFI’s view, would do much more to help get rid of seafood fraud if it focused on lobbying for greater enforcement rather than a misguided effort to expand the regulatory bureaucracy.

Fish fraud enforcement falls under the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which NFI sees as increasing its focus on the issue.

Recently released DNA testing over two years by FDA showed that 85 percent of the fish tested at wholesale was labeled correctly. NFI believes that work has given FDA the ability to focus on areas and even species where there are demonstrable challenges.

This project, known as Fish Seafood Compliance and Labeling Enforcement (or Fish SCALE) was awarded the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ “HHS Innovates Award” for outstanding success.

“To suggest regulators are not focused on the issue and ways to best use resources to fight it is simply incorrect,” NFI asserts. “When Oceana started work in the fish fraud area its efforts were welcome. As it’s strayed further and further from a clear, discernable goal of stopping seafood mislabeling, its efforts have begun to evolve into a distraction for those actually doing the real work in this space.”

Oceana’s study was based on an analysis of more than 200 peer-reviewed journal articles, media reports, and documents from governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

http://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-image-fish-store-new-york-market-chinatown-lower-manhattan-seafood-image34334006Combined, the studies included 25,700 samples of seafood — most of which were tested for fraud in restaurants, grocery stores and other retail outlets — in 55 countries representing every continent except Antarctica, according to Oceana.

About 58 percent of the samples deemed mislabeled were found to be species with health risks for consumers, such as escolar. The fish, which contains a naturally occurring toxin, has sometimes been sold as “white tuna” in sushi restaurants in the U.S. Escolar is among the most commonly substituted species across the globe, along with Asian catfish and hake, according to the group’s analysis.

The study was produced just ahead of the third annual “Our Ocean” conference being held in Washington, D.C., next week. The event is sponsored by Secretary of State John Kerry for heads of state, scientists, business leaders and NGOs to discuss sustainable fisheries, marine pollution and climate-related impacts on the world’s oceans.

Oceana wants the Obama administration to expand traceability requirements to all types of seafood, not just the 13 types deemed “at risk” in a rule proposed in February by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Or, at minimum, it would like the administration to commit to a specific timeline to do so.

NOAA’s rule, which is part of a larger action plan outlined by a White House task force on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud, will eventually expand to all species as predicted by John Henderschedt, director of NOAA Fisheries’ Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection.

Both Oceana and NFI are based in Washington, D.C., Oceana was founded in 2001 by The Pew Charitable Trusts, Oak Foundation, Marisla Foundation (formerly Homeland Foundation) and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. NFI is a non-profit organization for education about seafood safety, sustainability, and nutrition.

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