The apparent widespread fraud involving seafood labeling practices around ports of entry for imported fish poses a serious health risk for some, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration needs to step up enforcement of this food, says a longtime U.S. Senator. “It is unacceptable that proven fraud is occurring on such a widespread basis,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-CA, wrote Monday in a letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg. “Seafood fraud is not only deceptive marketing, but it can also pose serious health concerns, particularly for pregnant women seeking to limit exposure to heavy metals or individuals with serious allergies to certain types of fish.” FDA has recognized seafood fraud as a problem since at least 1991. “Seafood is a high-value product and it is a particularly attractive target for fraud,” says the agency’s Seafood Fraud website, which offers both guidance for the industry and tips on identifying certain fraudulent practices. Boxer’s pressure on FDA is over a study released in April 2012 by Oceana, a world ocean conservation group that often takes on projects to draw consumer interest into its larger agenda to protect oceans. For the study, Oceana researchers in 2011 and 2012 collected and tested 119 seafood samples from grocery stores, restaurants and sushi bars. The researchers found that mislabeling of seafood was common, including:

  • 65 of the 119 samples (55 percent) were mislabeled, according to federal guidelines.
  • Every fish sold under the “snapper” label (34 of 34) were mislabeled according to federal guidelines.
  • Half the mislabeled snapper was in fact Pacific rockfish. The rest were everything from farmed tilapia to pollock.
  • Nearly nine out of ten sushi samples (87 percent) were mislabeled with grocery stores most likely to carry the wrong brand.
  • Eight out of nine sushi samples labeled as “white tuna” were actually escolar, a snake mackerel species health warning for its “purgative” effects.

By location, the Oceana study found that 31 percent of the seafood it collected around Miami and Fort Lauderdale and 55 percent from Los Angeles and Orange County to be mislabeled. Boxer says not only are consumers not getting the fish they paid for, but also mislabeling can pose special health risks for women and people with certain allergies. “Consumers should not have to question the safety of their seafood,” Boxer said in her letter to the FDA. Imports are currently the source of 86 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S.  Boxer notes that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2009 found that only two percent of imported fish are inspected by FDA, and only a scant 0.01 percent are checked for seafood mislabeling. Since fish buyers for grocery stores, restaurants and sushi bars have more expertise about fish than ordinary consumers, many have suspected that most of the rip-off occurs after seafood leaves the port. “Because there is no traceability and transparency in the U.S. seafood supply, it is impossible for Oceana or any consumer, for that matter, to identify where the mislabeling is actually occurring,” Oceana spokesman Dustin L. Cranor told Food Safety News. “Seafood takes a complex path from fishing vessel to final point of sale, and mislabeling can occur at any step in the process.” “Senator Boxer’s contention that seafood fraud is “unacceptable” is absolutely right,” says Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the industry’s National Fisheries Institute. Gibbons says his National Fisheries Institute members are required to also be members of the industry lead anti-fraud organization, the Better Seafood Board (BSB.) “The BSB was established in 2007 after responsible members of the seafood community had, in essence, had it with unacceptable commercial practices related to economic integrity,” Gibbons told Food Safety News. “Senator Boxer’s effort to urge the FDA to “strengthen its enforcement efforts” are welcomed by NFI and the BSB.” He says the FDA has increased its regulatory efforts around seafood fraud over the last two years with the addition of a DNA data base and a significant increase in testing. “As noted by the Senator, it is here in the enforcement venue where real strides will be made. The laws are on the books and the regulations exist; when, how and how often they are enforced is the key to stamping out this fraud,” Gibbons added. “NFI, the BSB and groups who are truly invested in ending fish fraud know that effort begins with committed industry partners and a fully funded FDA.” Editor’s Note:  This story was updated to include comments from the NFI spokesman. The full text of the Senator’s letter is below: October 15, 2012 The Honorable Margaret Hamburg, M.D. Commissioner Food and Drug Administration U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 10903 New Hampshire Avenue Silver Spring, MD 20993 Dear Dr. Hamburg: I am writing to alert you to the alarmingly high occurrence of seafood fraud in our nation’s seafood products, and to request that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strengthen its enforcement against this problem. Seafood fraud is the mislabeling of one species of fish for another fish that is often cheaper and more readily available. Recent studies suggest this may be a pervasive practice in the United States. Since 2011, Oceana has collected fish samples from numerous grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi venues in different metropolitan areas and has had them genetically tested to determine their composition. A strikingly high percentage of these samples were mislabeled according to Federal guidelines: nearly 20 percent of the 88 samples tested in Boston, Massachusetts (and a separate study by the Boston Globe found an even higher percentage: 48 percent of 183 samples); 55 percent of the 119 samples tested in Los Angeles and Orange counties, California; and 31 percent of the 96 samples tested in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. These studies support research by the University of British Columbia and the University College Dublin, which have found common seafood species such as red snapper, wild salmon, and Atlantic cod to be mislabeled in 24 to 70 percent of the samples tested. It is unacceptable that proven fraud is occurring on such a widespread basis. Seafood fraud is not only deceptive marketing, but it can also pose serious health concerns, particularly for pregnant women seeking to limit exposure to heavy metals or individuals with serious allergies to certain types of fish. Oceana’s investigations in Southern Florida found a case in which a fish sold as grouper was actually king mackerel, a fish that federal and state authorities warn women of childbearing age not to eat due to high mercury levels, which can harm a developing fetus. Oceana also found that all samples of white tuna tested in their Florida study were actually escolar, a species that can cause severe digestive upset. Consumers should not have to question the safety of their seafood. Currently, 86 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. originates overseas, yet the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a 2009 report that the FDA inspects only two percent of all seafood imports, and only 0.01 percent is explicitly inspected for fraud or mislabeling. With such a high prevalence of seafood mislabeling, consumers cannot adequately protect themselves from fish originating in regions where health concerns exist. Seafood fraud not only misleads the consumer, but by undermining consumer confidence in the seafood industry, it also harms the many fishermen and seafood-related businesses that are honest brokers. Many participants in the seafood industry have voluntarily undertaken efforts to improve the integrity of seafood sourcing and encourage best business practices at all levels in the chain of commerce. However, uniform, national standards and enforcement are necessary to ensure the safety of consumers throughout our country. The FDA has the authority to inspect domestic and imported seafood to detect for fraud, yet very few inspections are conducted for this purpose. I understand that the FDA has recently increased its testing for seafood mislabeling, and I appreciate those efforts, but I believe we need to do more. Seafood can follow a complex path from the point when it is caught to the point when it is sold to a consumer, making it difficult to isolate the point where fraud occurs. To effectively address this problem, we need better traceability and enforcement throughout the entire chain of sale, from bait to plate. To better understand the scope of this problem and explore some possible solutions, I respectfully request answers to the attached list of questions. Furthermore, I would like to know what steps you are taking to ensure that there are adequate inspections for seafood mislabeling to assure consumers that their seafood is safe. I look forward to working with you to improve the safety of seafood for American consumers. Sincerely, Barbara Boxer United States Senator ATTACHMENT: QUESTIONS ON ENFORCEMENT AGAINST SEAFOOD MISLABELING If, upon inspection, an imported product is found to be mislabeled, can the FDA refuse the product entry into the United States? If yes, how often are mislabeled products refused entry? Are there reasons why the FDA would not refuse a mislabeled product entry? Does FDA include inspection for misbranding as a component of every inspection it conducts on seafood? If not, why not? How much does it cost, on average, to inspect a seafood item for misbranding? Does the cost of inspecting seafood for misbranding vary depending on whether the seafood item is domestic or imported? What factors influence the cost of inspecting seafood for misbranding? Do you share all information on inspections and inspection results with the National Marine Fisheries Service and Customs and Border Protection, even if a health risk has not been identified? If not, please explain why. Full pedigree traceability (i.e., “from bait to plate”) is important to ensure that consumers have complete, accurate information about the seafood they consume: where, when and how it was caught. In light of the FDA’s broad power to control labeling for public health (21 U.S.C. § 393(b)(2)), does the agency have the statutory authority to implement “bait to plate” traceability? If not, what prevents FDA from implementing such traceability? Are there existing laws that affirmatively prevent FDA from taking these actions, or is the problem an absence of needed legal authority? 6. Section 204 of the Food Safety Modernization Act requires enhanced record-keeping for foods designated as “high-risk” by the Secretary of Health and Human Services. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, seafood is among the top foods responsible for foodborne illness outbreaks every year. Given that, are you considering designating seafood in this “high-risk” category? ###