In a darkened alleyway, an ominous figure in a trench coat beckons from the shadows.
He opens his trench coat.
“Pssst,” he says. “Wanna buy a …”
A king salmon look-alike? Seriously?
O.K., so seafood fraud probably doesn’t play out like the sale of a knockoff handbag on the streets of Manhattan. But it’s a big problem and more widespread than most people realize. And it’s a significant issue for Alaska’s commercial fishing industry, which contributes almost $5 billion to Alaska’s economic output each year.
Global consumption of seafood is on the rise, and that has increased the demand as well as the price for fish. Figures from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization indicate that seafood is the most-traded food commodity and worth more than $100 billion a year. Suppliers want to capitalize on the high prices, so there are incentives to overfish the seas and mislabel products.
For example, let’s say that you’re spending your hard-earned cash on a splurge of wild red salmon from Alaska for a special occasion, but what you actually receive is farm-raised Atlantic salmon. You wouldn’t know; the person you’re buying it from might not even know. Somewhere between the ocean and your table, a switch was made—making you and the Alaska seafood industry victims of seafood fraud.
How does it happen? The majority of seafood fraud occurs in one of two ways: short-weighting (adding excess breading, ice or saltwater to seafood to get away with selling smaller quantities of fish than advertised) and mislabeling (substituting one species for another).
At the release of its report on seafood fraud, Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health in May 2011, Oceana, an international advocacy group, turned its news conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., into real-life demonstration: Organizers presented skinless fillets of halibut and fluke, without labels, and asked the audience to identify the species by sight. Oceana repeated the test for red snapper vs. hake and farmed vs. wild salmon.
The majority of the audience couldn’t tell the difference. Oceana went on to conduct a taste test between tilapia and vermilion snapper, both served in a lemon caper sauce, with similarly poor results from the audience.
The point was clear: It’s easy to deceive consumers when it comes to fish.
The price of fraud
Fish fraud isn’t just a financial risk for consumers. Oceana’s report identified several ways seafood fraud harms consumers and the oceans.
Seafood fraud can threaten people’s health, because substituting one species of fish for another that may be riddled with contaminants, toxins or allergens can make someone sick. Seafood fraud also makes it easy to launder illegally caught seafood through the U.S. market, which undermines efforts to prevent overfishing and accidental capture of at-risk species, and it hurts honest fishermen.
Mislabeling fish makes it difficult for consumers to make eco-friendly choices. Market-driven conservation efforts depend on the consumer’s ability to make an informed purchase, and that becomes nearly impossible when fish are mislabeled.
Seafood fraud also misleads consumers about the true availability of seafood and the state of the marine environment. Because mislabeling maintains the appearance of a steady supply of popular fish species despite severe overfishing, the public may be unaware that the species is in serious trouble.
The report contends that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 30 percent of the time on average and up to 70 percent of the time for species such as wild salmon, red snapper and Atlantic cod. Because the U.S. imports 84 percent of its seafood and because the journey from ocean to dinner plate can be a complicated, circuitous path, opportunities for fraud abound.
Oceana notes that the process that turns whole fish into fillets makes it almost impossible for agencies to detect fraud without DNA testing.
“We don’t expect people, when they’re ordering meat, to have to guess whether it’s beef or horse or whale or Grade A prime or dog grade,” said Mike Hirshfield, chief scientist for Oceana. “And yet with fish, where there are many more choices, we do the exact opposite.”
There are numerous problems associated with fish fraud, some economic and some environmental, Hirshfield said. Fraud encourages fishermen to further mine the oceans for seafood, further taxing already-depleted stocks. Fraud also penalizes the honest sellers of seafood when companies correctly label their fish and then find themselves undercut by importers that offer so-called identical fish for far less.
There’s also a significant health issue.
“You know you are allergic to fish, and you think you’re eating crab, and it turns out to be pollock,” Hirshfield said. “You could end up in anaphylactic shock.”
Hard data now available
The problem of fish fraud is almost unquantifiable. The United States now imports roughly 1,700 species of seafood from around the world, making it unrealistic to expect the American consumer to be able to accurately determine what fish is really being served or sold. There is a patchwork of U.S. laws and agencies that cover seafood and seafood labeling and inspection, Hirshfield said, but it “looks like the Food and Drug Administration has the primary responsibility.”
Oceana is calling on the federal government to prioritize seafood fraud prevention, but the answer doesn’t seem likely to be found in government enforcement, given that only 2 percent of the fish coming into this country is inspected and that only one-tenth of 1 percent is inspected specifically for fraud.
However, recent improvements in the affordability and availability of DNA testing have given hard data to what had been largely anecdotal reports of seafood fraud. DNA bar coding works by comparing gene sequences of a sample of fish to the 8,000 varieties stored in the International Barcode of Life Project. By the end of the year, the FDA plans to institute routine DNA testing, and desktop DNA bar coding systems could be introduced within five years. A decade from now, inspectors might be carrying hand-held sequencers. All of this could add up to a promising future for accurate seafood labeling and less likelihood that the Alaska king salmon you bought for your anniversary dinner was really farmed in Chile.
Right now, though, the scope of the problem of mislabeling seafood is unknown.
“Both scientists and amateur seafood sleuths have exposed seafood fraud across the U.S. and Europe,” the Oceana report stated. “A recent review found false labels on more than one-third of fish, while other research found one-quarter of fish tested in the U.S. and Canada were mislabeled.”
In July, a study was released by a group of students at the University of Washington Tacoma who studied the DNA of salmon sold by local restaurants with the salmon advertised on their menus. More than one-third of the nearly 50 restaurants studied either substituted Atlantic farmed salmon for wild Pacific salmon or served the less desirable silver salmon in place of king salmon. The three-year study found that substitutions were more likely to be made in the winter, when fresh fish supplies are lower and when salmon was one of several ingredients in a dish.
The students found, however, that most supermarkets label their salmon correctly. Only about 7 percent of store samples were inaccurately labeled, with larger retailers much more likely to correctly label their salmon.
For some retailers, like Whole Foods Market, which acquires somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of its seafood from Alaska, the answer lies in purchasing seafood from reputable sources that are certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, an independent nonprofit organization with an eco-label and fishery certification program.
“For our wild-caught seafood program, we offer a range of wild seafood sourced from MSC-certified sustainable fisheries,” said Carrie Brownstein, seafood quality standards coordinator for Whole Foods Market. “We’ve partnered with the MSC for over a decade and continue to bring more MSC-certified seafood into our stores as increasing numbers of fisheries become certified.”
MSC certification has become something of a gold standard in the industry. Seafood bearing the blue MSC eco-label indicates that the fishery from which the fish originates operates in an environmentally responsible way and does not contribute to the global environmental problem of overfishing, and the consumer can be sure they are buying what they think they are buying. As of the end of 2010, more than 1,300 fisheries and companies had achieved a Marine Stewardship Council certification.
“Substitution and co-mingling, whether fraud or unintentional, is a big problem in the seafood trade,” said Kerry Coughlin, MSC’s regional director for the Americas. “Seafood is the largest traded food commodity in the world and there is pressure to fill orders, substitute cheaper fish being sold as something else to grow margins, and other activities that lead to what amounts to fraud.”
The MSC program includes a rigorous third-party audit and certification not only for fisheries, but also for the supply chain wherever an MSC label or claim is used. Seafood bearing the MSC logo can be traced from the consumer to the fishery that caught it.
“In the case of Alaska, since many of the species from Alaska are MSC-certified, the MSC chain of custody, as we call our supply chain traceability standard, plays an important part in assuring buyers of MSC-labeled Alaska seafood that it is, in fact, the species claimed,” Coughlin said.
Throughout the supply chain, use of the MSC eco-label on fish products is only permitted where there has been independent verification that the product originated from an MSC-certified fishery. A chain-of-custody certificate for each company in the supply chain provides this verification. To use the MSC eco-label, companies must also hold an MSC eco-label license. Often the supply chain involves a number of different companies, and each company that takes ownership of, or processes the product, is required to obtain its own chain-of-custody certificate in order to apply the MSC eco-label. If there is a break in certification in the supply chain, products are not eligible to carry the eco-label.
The system appears to be working. Recently, independent DNA tests on 240 random samples showed that MSC certified fish continues to perform well in traceability tests. All of the samples showed that they came from the fish labeled on the pack and none of the products was mislabeled. These early results establish DNA analysis as a valuable tool in combating the fraudulent use of eco-labels. As a result, the MSC plans to expand the testing of species.
But the success and growing popularity of any program such as this will inevitably invite a new opportunity for fraud.
“As the momentum behind the MSC program increases and market demand for MSC-certified products grows, so too does the incentive for fraudulent use of the MSC eco-label,” said Rupert Howes, MSC’s chief executive. “DNA testing helps build public confidence in product sourcing and labeling claims. Traceability is an essential business requirement and the MSC will continue to develop systems that help protect our partners’ investment, markets and reputation.”
Certification is good business
Ensuring consumers that they are getting what they pay for is the clear benefit of chain-of-custody certification for Annette Island Packing, Alaska’s only Native-owned seafood processing and packing company. Owned and operated for decades by the Metlakatla Indian community, Annette Island Packing received its official MSC certification in June 2011. It was an important step for the business.
“Because we’re a federal Indian reservation, we fall outside of the state of Alaska’s certification umbrella,” said Dustin Winter, Annette Island’s commercial fisheries manager. “But because we export a lot of our fish to Europe, and the European markets require certification showing that we are responsibly managing our fisheries, it made sense to go through the process to become MSC certified.”
The MSC program has two key elements: One is the fishery certification, which demonstrates that the fish stocks are healthy and the fishery management system is effective to maintain the fishery as sustainable over time; the second part of the MSC program is the traceability and labeling. In order to use the MSC label, companies must have traceability systems in place.
Winter, a former commercial fisherman, says that the MSC certification process is lengthy and comprehensive.
“We worked with an independent third party who reviewed all of our data and rated us in three areas: sustainability, the impact on the marine eco-system, and the management of our fisheries,” he said. “It took a couple of years, but in the end, not only did the certification keep doors open to our global markets, it allowed us to put the MSC label on our products. That means that consumers can trust that they are getting what they are paying for, and that they can track where the seafood they are buying came from.”
Alaska’s fisheries have a rich history of commitment to sustainability—a commitment that dates back to statehood in 1959, when fisheries sustainability was written into the constitution. MSC’s Coughlin is quick to praise the Alaska seafood industry for its approach.
“We didn’t come in and make these fisheries compliant,” Coughlin said. “The fisheries in Alaska, the majority of which are certified to the MSC, were already showing a strong commitment to sustainability and were already providing a model of responsible fishery management. MSC was created to recognize and reward environmentally responsible and sustainable fishing practices and importantly, to empower consumers through the use of the label to make the best environmental choice. It has become important to have a trusted global platform, which markets are beginning to demand and which is important to Alaska’s livelihood. ”
Be an informed consumer
The best way to ensure the fish you eat is authentic is to catch it yourself, but that’s not possible for most consumers who want to enjoy Alaska’s ocean bounty. The next best way, Coughlin said, is to ask questions.
“Increasingly, consumers want to know where their food is coming from,” she said. “Consumers should ask for certified, sustainable fish.”
Coughlin said no one is immune from seafood fraud and even the experts have to stay vigilant to avoid being fooled. Coughlin said she once dined with the MSC’s technical advisory board, which includes some of the world’s top leading scientists associated with fishery management and sustainability.
“I ordered the black cod and when my dinner arrived, it was clearly not black cod at all,” she said. “I called the waiter over, who very defensively asserted that the fish on my plate was black cod. My dinner plate was then handed around the table and each scientist agreed that the fish was not black cod.”
The manager came to the table, left to confer with the chef, and returned to insist the fish was black cod.
“Eventually, after another trip to the kitchen, he admitted that the restaurant had run out of the black cod and had substituted another fish,” she said. “It just happened to be his bad luck that our table included nine of the world’s leading Ph.D.s in fishery science.”
For the rest of us, who don’t travel with quite such knowledgeable dinner companions, looking for the MSC eco-label and asking questions about the source of the seafood we buy may be the best defense against seafood fraud.
—Barb Cooper is a freelance writer based in New York. She has recently started questioning the origin of the Alaska seafood she buys.
— If Alaska were a nation it would have placed 14th among seafood-producing countries in 2008.
— Alaska landings of global groundﬁsh species groups (including cod, pollock, hake and haddock) and ﬂatfish accounted for 18 percent of the world harvest of these species groups in 2008.
— In 2008, about 35 percent of the world capture production of species in the salmon, trout, smelt group occurred in Alaska waters
— Alaska accounted for 95 percent of all U.S. Paciﬁc salmon landings in 2009.
— The 2010 salmon season was one of the best on record with almost 170 million ﬁsh harvested in Alaska, the 11th highest number since statehood. Preliminary 2010 estimates show that the salmon harvest generated $533.9 million, the highest post-vessel value in 18 years.
— In 2009, $1.6 billion worth of seafood was exported directly from Alaska to destinations such as Japan, China, South Korea, Canada and Europe.
— In 2009, Japan was the leading direct importer of Alaska ﬁsh and ﬁsheries products (by value) followed by China, South Korea, Germany, the Netherlands and Canada.
(source: Marine Conservation Alliance, Alaska)