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Seafood Fraud: Is Something Fishy Going On?
By Food and Drug Administration (FDA)


Fresh fish for dinner tonight. Twelve dollars a pound is a bit pricey to experiment with a new recipe, but on ice in the market, the fish labeled "red snapper" looks fresh and inviting. So you buy it.

But how do you know the fish really is red snapper and not rockfish, its look-alike that generally sells for about $2 a pound? Such species substitution — selling a cheaper fish as though it were a more expensive one — is one of several kinds of economic fraud involving seafood sales that troubles consumers, reputable dealers, and the Food and Drug Administration.

Because seafood is such a high-value product, it is a particularly attractive target for fraud. Overbreading, another form of economic fraud, has consumers paying shrimp prices for bread crumbs, and overglazing charges lobster tail prices for ice. Abuses such as these hit consumers squarely in the wallet. FDA has recently begun focusing more intensely on its mandate to reduce economic fraud in the seafood industry. In 1991, the agency established the Office of Seafood, with a 60 percent increase in funding for seafood inspection, including an increase in resources for field offices.

The seafood industry doesn't like economic fraud either. A 1985 National Fisheries Institute survey report said, "There was general agreement among the industries (processing, distributing and importing firms) as well as retailers and restaurateurs that there is widespread abuse of overglazing and overbreading of fishery products, inaccurate net weights, and species substitution." In a presentation at the Atlantic Fisheries Technology Conference in 1990, the National Marine Fisheries Service said, "No matter what the reason, industry' s desire for a level playing field to combat fraud is strong, and consumers want full value."

Though there are reported incidents, the extent of seafood fraud is not well documented. Few databases are designed specifically to track economic fraud. The ones that do usually include data from the National Marine Fisheries Service seafood inspection laboratory (which analyzes samples upon request), state-directed surveys, and weights and measure programs, such as that of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Fraud is not always intentional. It can occur because of misunderstanding or lack of information, or it can be an honest mistake by a grocery store if the store bought a misrepresented product. Ignorance of the mislabeling does not excuse the violation, however, and FDA holds the seller responsible.

Mary Snyder, chief of the policy guidance branch of FDA's Office of Seafood, says the agency is doing what it can to educate retailers so they can guard against fraud. FDA advises retailers to be specific when ordering seafood and encourages them to take the initiative to learn about the products. In addition, FDA has put retailers on notice about the agency's emphasis on enforcement through letters warning about economic fraud. As a result, some supermarkets advised their seafood buyers that they would report abuses to FDA.


What Species Is It?

This question doesn't have to come up if a product is properly labeled. But it does, because species substitution is likely the most widespread abuse. Speaking to the National Fisheries Institute in April 1991, FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler, M.D., said: "There is no place in the seafood industry for those who substitute a less expensive or less desirable species of fish for one that consumers value more. We will seek out those who perpetrate fraud — and we will bring them to justice."

FDA is reeling in abusers making big profits. For example, in May 1992, FDA detained 1,200 pounds of fresh rockfish from Canada, invoiced at $1.50 per pound. According to FDA's Seattle district, it was labeled red snapper, the federally recognized name for a species that comes from the southern Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. FDA estimates the firm could have realized an excess profit of about $12,600 on that shipment alone over what it would have received if the fish had been properly labeled. In another case in 1989, FDA's Chicago district seized a 45,000 pound lot of oreo dory (average price $2 per pound), imported from New Zealand, bound for Ohio markets labeled as orange roughy, which also comes from New Zealand but generally sells for $6 per pound. FDA estimates the firm could have realized an unfair profit of about $150,000.

"It's not always possible to 'see' that a lesser product has been substituted for another," says Snyder, who is also FDA's species identification expert. Sometimes, FDA regulators must use laboratory verification such as identifying the fish scale and patterns, or isoelectric focusing, a technique that identifies a species by analyzing the pattern of proteins in the flesh. When charged with an electric current, the proteins form a unique pattern for each 7 species. The pattern from the species in question is then compared with the known pattern for that species, very much like comparing fingerprints.

Many species have distinguishing marks or specific origins, and an informed consumer can watch for the marks or ask the fish market manager where the fish comes from. (See accompanying article.) Consumers can also check one of many well-illustrated seafood cookbooks. These have information on what species look like, and how to tell the difference between substitutes and the real thing. Usually there's also information about the texture and taste of a species. If a product isn't as expected after it's cooked, FDA advises consumers to discuss the problem with the fish market manager where the product was purchased.

To guide species identification, FDA maintains a seafood names list, which is being expanded this year to include shellfish. The list is used mostly by industry so it can uniformly label its products using FDA acceptable market names. Developed in cooperation with the National Marine Fisheries Service, the list includes over 1,000 species currently sold in the United States or that have a strong potential for sale here. It does not list endangered species nor those prohibited for sale. For example, escolar, a fish commonly known as "castor oil fish," was deleted from the new edition after it was reported to cause diarrhea in many consumers.

The seafood list shows the acceptable market name, the scientific name, and any regional names. Regional names can cause confusion, sometimes deliberately, other times inadvertently. For example, rockfish is called "Pacific red snapper" in California. People in California know what to expect when they see "Pacific red snapper" but in other parts of the United States, consumers only know red snapper as a highly valued fish from the Gulf of Mexico. FDA does not allow rockfish sold across state lines out of California to be called anything other than "rockfish."

Sometimes regional names for fish are "made up" to make the fish sound better or of higher value, Snyder says. She gives the example of tilapia, a common imported fish that is also bred in the United States and other countries through aquaculture (on fish farms). Because it is also found in the Sea of Galilee in Israel, it traditionally has been called "St. Peter's fish," for the biblical fisherman of the New Testament. Importers have tried bringing it into this country labeled "St. Peter's fish," but FDA has informed them that it must be labeled tilapia.


Colors Added to Fish Feed

Some aquaculturalists have begun using the color additives canthaxanthin and astaxanthin, both derived from beta carotene, a vitamin A component that imparts an orange color. Canthaxanthin is approved for use in chicken feed — the color gives chicken flesh the yellow cast that some people find desirable. Astaxanthin has not yet been approved for any food or feed use. **(See end of article for updated information)**

When used in feed for rainbow trout, these color additives turn trout flesh the color of salmon, a much higher valued species. In addition, some aquaculturalists grow the fish to larger than trout size, and then market it as "salmon trout." There is no such species and this is not an acceptable market name, Snyder says.

Color additive experts in FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition are aware that the regulation listing canthaxanthin to color food may lead some to think that it may be used in fish and fish feed. FDA did not intend to list this color additive for these uses. The agency is currently working on a regulation that would make it clear that the use of regulated colors in animal feed with the intention of coloring the animal flesh must have a specific listing for such use.


Water Added

Sodium tripolyphosphate (STP) is one of a family of phosphates the seafood industry may use as humectants, substances that maintain moisture in products. STP is used to process scallops, shrimp and lobster tails.

The phosphates are currently listed by FDA as "generally recognized as safe", a classification that means a food additive may be used for certain purposes. However, FDA is concerned that the seafood industry is using STP in ways that constitute economic abuse, especially in scallops. Atlantic sea scallops, for example, usually consist of 75 to 79 percent water. They can lose a considerable amount of their moisture after the shellfish are harvested and the meat is removed from the shell.

Soaking in an STP-water solution keeps scallops from losing their natural water. Prolonged soaking, however, can result in Atlantic sea scallops with excessive water, adding to the product's total weight. Inspections of processing plants by FDA's Boston and Baltimore districts showed that some scallop processors were soaking the shellfish for up to 36 hours, resulting in a 4 to 5 percent weight gain.

Consumers could be defrauded into buying water-augmented scallops at the same price per pound as scallops that are naturally larger. FDA met with industry representatives to discuss the use of STP. The industry agreed to determine the effects of various treatment times and STP concentrations on scallops, and to determine whether STP soaking provides benefits beyond restoring water loss, such as improving the texture of the scallops.

Excessive water has also been found in shelled oyster containers. FDA is concerned that this practice adulterates the product because the water is absorbed by the oysters, increasing their apparent weight. The agency is currently revising the regulation that defines the number of oysters and amount of liquid.

FDA does not object to the industry practice of using a frozen glaze of water to protect products such as frozen shrimp and lobster tails from freezer burn. Such glaze, however, cannot be pan of the net weight. FDA has sent warning letters to processors and trade associations saying that the agency will take regulatory action where evidence of this practice is found.


Overbreading and Fresh Thawed

It's disappointing to open a frozen seafood package and find more breading than fish. In 1991, the Connecticut state government surveyed breaded frozen shrimp products and found an average of 33.5 percent shrimp — the rest was bread crumbs. The FDA standard for breaded shrimp requires that the product contain at least 50 percent shrimp. The method for breading is included in the standard.

FDA is taking enforcement action against processors who overbread. For example, in March 1991 in Mississippi, FDA seized 1,788 pounds of frozen breaded shrimp, valued at $5,000 ($2.80 per pound), which contained only 41.4 percent shrimp. With an 8.2 percent shortage of shrimp, FDA estimated the firm could have realized a profit excess of $300 at the consumers' expense.

Sometimes, fish in the market is labeled "previously frozen." FDA allows the sale of thawed fish that has previously been frozen, but it must be labeled as such and cannot be labeled fresh. Fish spoils more easily than most flesh foods, and even in ideal storage conditions, it has a very short shelf life in its fresh condition. Therefore, to protect the product, many processors freeze fish as soon as possible, often at sea. This can be an excellent product. However, if a fish has previously been frozen and is then thawed for sale, the label must state that the product was previously frozen.


Is It Really Caviar?

Unless it's roe (fish eggs) from the sturgeon species, it's not caviar, FDA says in a policy established many years ago. Sturgeon roe sells for about $35 an ounce; roe from other species such as salmon or lumpfish sells for $1 an ounce. Two years ago, FDA issued a warning letter to a firm that had labeled whitefish roe as "American Golden Caviar."

FDA is working to protect consumers from fraudulent practices in the seafood industry. The agency gives talks to industry groups, displays at trade shows, and has open exchanges with state regulatory agencies, as well as increased training for its own field investigators. And a hot line is available to answer consumer questions. But FDA emphasizes that the best defense against fraud is the educated consumer.


How to Avoid Seafood Economic Fraud

To get the best value for your money when buying seafood, it's important to know what you're buying. Be wary of unusual bargains — some seafood is seasonal. If there is a considerable difference between the price of a fresh product and what you are accustomed to paying, it could be that it is from the last season's frozen inventory. Buy from a reputable dealer. And if the fish you choose looks or smells different from what you expect, discuss it with the fish market manager.

Look for firm, shiny flesh that bounces back when touched. If the head is on, the eyes should be clear and bulge, and the gills should be bright red. The fish should not smell "fishy" — it should smell like a fresh ocean breeze.

It's easy to miss the telltale signs of species substitution. Sometimes, taste or consistency is the only way to detect it. If you feel you have purchased something different from what was represented, tell your fish market manager.


Here's how to distinguish some common species:
  • Haddock has a dark lateral line along the skin surface.
  • Skinless cod fillets have a distinctive white papery membrane along the belly and a white line of fat along the lateral line of the fillet.
  • Shark and swordfish look alike, but shark has a dark streak of flesh in the center and rough skin along the edge.
  • Red snapper comes only from the southern Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico (ask your retailer where the snapper originated).
  • Orange roughy comes only from Australia or New Zealand and always arrives frozen. It may be sold thawed, but it must be labeled as previously frozen.
  • Scrod is not a type of fish. The term originated in the Boston area to describe the catch of the day. It is a fish under two and a half pounds that is either cod, haddock or pollock. Such fish should be labeled in the market or listed in a restaurant as "scrod cod" , "scrod haddock" or "scrod pollock."
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