Tilapia disguised as red snapper. Escolar sold as white tuna. Farmed salmon labeled as wild, caught from Alaska. These are all real cases of seafood mislabeling that have been found in the United States, and this type of fraud may be more common than you think.
In June, however, President Barack Obama took a historic step forward for consumers, honest seafood purveyors and ocean conservationists alike when he announced the creation of the Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud. As part of his commitment, he has directed the task force to create recommendations to help the U.S. seafood industry fight these problems. Now that the public comment period is finished, the task force can begin crafting its recommendations.
The first recommendation that should be on the list? Traceability.
Seafood travels through a long and complex global supply chain, with opportunities for fraudulent activities at every step. Last year, Oceana released a study that found one-third of 1,200 seafood samples tested from across the country were mislabeled according to Food and Drug Administration guidelines. Another recent study in Marine Policy found that between 20 percent and 32 percent of seafood imported into the U.S. is a result of illegal fishing activity.
Seafood fraud, in which seafood products are deliberately misrepresented or mislabeled as other species, threatens the businesses of honest fishermen and jeopardizes public health. Illegal fishing is also a major concern, as pirate fishermen often catch threatened species, fish in banned waters or use illegal and destructive gear, undermining decades of conservation and costing billions in global economic losses.
Seafood mislabeling is more than just a truth-in-advertising problem. Oceana’s studies have also found high-mercury fish, which the FDA advises sensitive populations such as pregnant women and children to avoid, disguised as safer choices. Fish are mislabeled as other species that can cost twice as much, and fish listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as threatened or endangered are sold as more sustainable choices.
While the meat and produce industries have dealt with the need for rapid traceability and transparency for decades, the seafood industry has lagged in the traceability that helps identify a food’s origin. This has opened our markets to illegally-caught seafood, which threatens already vulnerable fish stocks and creates unfair competition with legally caught, U.S. products. It is clear this type of fraud has direct impacts on our economy, our health and our marine environments.
As the largest single country market for seafood imports, the U.S. has a responsibility to protect consumers and American businesses by putting into place traceability, labeling and proof of legality requirements. This is where the president’s task force comes in.
It needs to listen to the many consumer organizations, industry groups and members of the public who have weighed in and require traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S. — where key information such as the species name, and where, when and how it was caught or farmed follows the fish throughout the supply chain.
Congress has been trying to address this problem for years. The Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act (HR 1012, S 520), spearheaded by Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and Mark Begich, D-Alaska, and Rep. Lois Capps, D-Calif., as well as others over the years, has been introduced twice in the past two years and would have required traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S. Other lawmakers have reached out to the administration on this issue, including sending a letter calling on the FDA to increase its inspection efforts. On illegal fishing, Congress has introduced bills such as the Pirate Fishing Elimination Act and the International Fisheries Stewardship and Enforcement Act, both of which would strengthen efforts to fight IUU fishing and help keep illegally caught fish out of U.S. markets. We hope lawmakers will continue to be vocal and remain committed to this cause, taking this opportunity to call on the task force to require traceability and help protect American consumers from unsafe and illegally-harvested seafood.
Under existing federal laws, the task force already has the authority and ability to protect our country’s fishing industry and consumers through honest labeling and traceability. Specifically, this would include catch documentation for all seafood, including having this information follow the fish to the end consumer, and establishing clear rules at the border to refuse entry of any seafood products that cannot provide evidence of legal origin.
Not only do consumers have the right to know where their food comes from, they also have the right to know they are not indirectly contributing to illegal activity. Responsible fishermen and suppliers should not have to compete with illegally caught and mislabeled products. Our seafood supply chain needs an upgrade. Only by tracking our fish from boat to plate can we ensure the seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled.
Beth Lowell is senior campaign director at Oceana.