Story last updated at 12/10/2008 - 11:29 am
SEATTLE - Mislabeled illegally imported seafood sold into domestic markets is striking a blow to the fisheries industry's income and reputation, a federal fisheries agent said Nov. 22.
Every pound of mislabeled fish affects the fishermen, the processors, the reputation of restaurant chains and the trust of consumers, said Andrew Cohen, a special agent-in-charge with NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement, in Goucester, Mass.
"And you can make as much money dealing in illegal seafood as you can in heroin," Cohen said in a panel discussion on fraudulent mislabeling of seafood and its effect on the commercial fishing industry during Pacific Marine Expo 2008. "It's white collar crime; an invisible crime, not easy to detect."
Cohen was one of three panelists in the lively discussion on purposely mislabeling or substituting a cheaper seafood product for a more expensive/preferred product, a practice now commonplace in the seafood industry.
While the practice is not prevalent in Alaska, according Jeff Passer, Cohen's counterpart in Juneau, it stands to compete with seafood harvested in Alaska for markets outside the state.
Passer said in an interview Nov. 25 that his office has tested crab and salmon to determine species, but that in general Alaska is not an import state and does not have a population which would prompt shipment of tons of fraudulently mislabeled seafood.
In Washington State, by contrast, a businessman was recently convicted of trying to sell more than 65 tons of turbot imported from China as halibut, a more expensive fish. The Associated Press report said part of the settlement agreement was that the culprit must donate to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation the profit he made from the sale. He was also required to take out ads in seafood magazines to say what he did and to apologize for it, the AP story said.
And in Los Angeles, earlier in November, 26 companies faced criminal charges for the illegal import of Asian catfish from a Vietnamese fish farm, Cohen said.
Every pound of fraudulently labeled seafood that enters the domestic marketplace and is sold in a market or restaurant is a pound bought by consumers in place of legal domestic seafood.
It is also illegal under the Lacey Act, federal legislation would prohibits trade in wildlife, fish and plants that have been illegally taken, possessed, transported or sold.
Cohen told fishermen, processors and others attending the panel discussion that there are ways they can help combat this illegal competition, by questioning waiters in restaurants and marketplace sellers of seafood as to the point of origin on their products.
Dannon Southall, a spokesman for 10th and M Seafoods in Anchorage, said his company has not had issues with illegally imported or mislabeled seafood because of a very close working relationship with vendors. "There is so much attention to detail around here that we get what we ask for," he said.
For others less educated in ways of the seafood market, caution should be constantly observed, Cohen said. "Go into a New England restaurant and ask about that fresh Copper River salmon (advertised) in March. That ain't happening," he said.
Shoppers in markets and patrons of restaurants too should ask specific questions about the advertised product, particularly if the price doesn't look right. "There are very few bargains in the seafood world," he said.
Seafood fraud goes beyond mislabeling and substitution, with product sold as fresh when it was previously frozen, farmed seafood sold as wild, and products of a weight lower than stated.
Federal Country of Origin Labeling has helped the retail sector somewhat, Cohen said. Still the retail or wholesale customer has a better chance of getting what is advertised if they know the seller, order specifically and ask for invoices. If the product delivered is not what was advertised, return it, he said. "Rejecting a load sends the right message."
Buyers suspicious about an advertised or purchased product have some options, including a phone call to the NOAA hotline, at 1-800-853-1964. There are also independent firms, Like Therion International (www.theriondna.com), which specialize in DNA testing of animal and seafood products.
Therion managing member William Gergits, who joined Cohen on the panel, noted some of the DNA testing his firm had done for buyers who became suspicious. One case involved Zander, a European walleye fish, sold in a Midwestern state as locally harvested walleye, but at about $2 less a pound than the local fish.
Testing revealed that 8 of 15 restaurants were serving Zanger, advertised as locally caught walleye, he said.
Therion has tested samples from all over the country of seafood proported to be everything from red snapper to mahi mahi, Gergits said. About 50 percent of the time, testing showed that the seafood was not what it was advertised to be.
"It's pretty much of an epidemic," he said.