“It is unlawful to knowingly sell or offer for sale at wholesale or retail any fresh, frozen, or processed food fish or shellfish without identifying for the buyer at the point of sale the species of food fish or shellfish by its common name, such that the buyer can make an informed purchasing decision for his or her protection, health, and safety.” – Washington state’s new fish fraud law Oceana, the nongovernmental ocean conservation group, is on a mission to knock down seafood fraud. It won a big state victory last year, and now it’s back for more. After documenting over multiple years how consumers are fooled by cheaper substitutes for choice fish such as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, Oceana is fighting fish fraud in both the states and in Washington, D.C. Just as most Europeans did not know hamburger from horsemeat until their governments started doing DNA testing, recent studies by Oceana, Consumer Reports and others show that Americans are being fooled by fish fraud on a massive scale. As many as 25 to 70 percent of the seafood being purchased in the United States are less desirable, cheaper, or more readily available substitute species that are being priced and sold as the real thing. During the last legislative season, Oceana won big in Washington state where any threat to native salmon is taken very seriously by lawmakers. Gov. Jay Inslee signed House Bill 1200 last May 20, making fish fraud a crime with provisions for fines and jail time. Oceana’s legislative campaign continues this year with:

  • Congressmen Edward Markey (D-MA ) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) penning a letter to President Obama calling for federal action on seafood fraud. “This fraud is ripping off consumers, posing health risks by disguising species that may be harmful for sensitive group, and harming our oceans by making it easier for illegally caught product to make its way into the U.S. market,” the pair wrote the president.
  • Maryland State Delegate Eric Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, on Wednesday introduced the “Maryland Seafood Authenticity and Enforcement Act” to provide state residents with more information about the seafood they purchase. In addition to protecting the integrity of Maryland’s iconic blue crab, Luedtke’s bill would make knowingly mislabeling a species illegal.

A 2009 report by the Government Accountability Office blamed lack of coordination and communication by three federal agencies – the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) – as contributing to fish fraud. Imports are the source of as much as 90 percent of the fish consumed in the U.S., and only about 2 percent of those products are inspected. Seafood fraud studies have found that consumers are fooled at both restaurants and at fish markets. And Oceana may be just getting started. “Right now, the only state legislation that has been introduced combating seafood fraud has been in Massachusetts (introduced last January by their Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure) and Maryland (introduced today),” Oceana’s Amelia Vorpahl told Food Safety News. Markey and Wicker are looking to enlist Obama in moving their SAFE Seafood Act, which they’ve had in the legislative hopper for some time. Markey says that widespread seafood fraud “cheats fishermen and consumers, while posing health risks to pregnant mothers and others.” Proponents of the national SAFE Seafood Act argue that fish fraud is a national problem that requires a national solution. They point to the GAO report finding that only 2 percent of seafood imports are inspected for food safety and only 0.001 percent for fraud. Markey says that consumers are being “swindled and sickened.” Vorpahl says Oceana hopes other states will start to follow the lead of Massachusetts and Maryland, and that the SAFE Act will continue to move forward. Oceana, a worldwide nonprofit, is based in Washington, D.C. Its assets topped $21 million in 2012, according to its IRS report.