Detecting seafood fraud can be challenging—determining whether seafood is accurately labeled is not only difficult for consumers but for the experts, too. But, with a growing suite of tools, from inspections and criminal investigations to traceability systems and genetic analysis, regulators and industry are cracking down on seafood fraud.

NOAA Law Enforcement—
on the beat for seafood fraud

Enforcement officers and agents

Along with state and federal partners, NOAA Office of Law Enforcement boards fishing vessels at sea; inspects fish processing plants; reviews internet sales of wildlife products; patrols land, air, and sea; and conducts complex criminal and civil investigations—all to combat seafood fraud. Enforcement agents and officers and the U.S. Department of Justice investigate and prosecute allegations of seafood fraud primarily under the Lacey Act, which is triggered when someone illegally harvests, possesses, transports, or sells fish and then proceeds to channel that illegal product into interstate or foreign commerce. The Lacey Act also makes it illegal to falsely label a product destined for commerce. With several convictions under their belt, NOAA Office of Law Enforcement helps ensure that legitimately harvested and marketed seafood is not undercut by mislabeled products, protecting fish, honest businesses, and seafood consumers.

You can help combat seafood fraud, too—report any suspected fraudulent activities on the NOAA Enforcement Hotline at 1.800.853.1964.

State and federal agencies—
inspection finds deception

FDA field inspectors check shipments of imported seafood at the Los Angeles International Airport. Photo credit: U.S. FDA

Many state and federal agencies including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Commerce work together to ensure that the seafood we buy is safe, wholesome, and properly labeled.

With a mission to protect public health, the FDA is concerned about seafood fraud because of the potential health risks associated with mislabeled seafood. The agency maintains The Seafood List, a list of acceptable market names for seafood sold in the U.S. market, to aid in the proper labeling of seafood and the Regulatory Fish Encyclopedia to help identify seafood species. This online encyclopedia houses high-quality images of whole fish and their product forms (for example, fillets and steaks) as well as taxonomic, geographic, and other relevant tools for species identification. The FDA also runs a mandatory fish inspection program for all seafood processors and retailers, both domestic and international. The program works by preventing food safety problems from developing rather than testing food after production to see if it is safe, with periodic inspections to ensure compliance.

Part of the Department of Commerce, NOAA's Seafood Inspection Program provides a voluntary, fee-based inspection service to fishing boats, processing plants, and retailers to ensure compliance with all seafood regulations from whole fish to processed products. Inspectors verify label accuracy, including country of origin, net weight, and species identification. NOAA's seafood inspectors see about one-fifth of the seafood consumed in the United States every year and find some kind of fraud in at least 40 percent of all products submitted to them voluntarily. If a seafood business passes inspection, it is considered an "Approved Establishment" and may carry a U.S. Grade A or U.S. Department of Commerce-inspected label on its products. If the label doesn't tell you, ask your fishmonger if it's from an Approved Establishment. NOAA's Seafood Inspection Program also supports NOAA Fisheries Office of Law Enforcement, tipping them off to violations to investigate and serving as experts in the prosecution of cases.

NOAA, the FDA, and DNA

A NOAA scientist takes a sample from a fish for DNA analysis.

Processing seafood removes or damages characteristics crucial for accurately identifying a species, making traditional methods of identification insufficient. During the past several years, the development of technology to identify fish through genetic analysis has given new hope to the fight against seafood fraud. Since an organism's genetic information (DNA) is contained in all of its tissues, scientists can accurately determine the identity of a species from a tiny sample of a fish in a variety of conditions—raw, frozen, or cooked fish fillets, canned fish, dried tissue, and even fish scales. To identify the species, they compare DNA from the unknown sample to DNA from known species using a reference library of DNA sequences.

NOAA scientists have been using advanced molecular genetics tools to analyze samples and accurately identify species for the past two decades. The Northwest Fisheries Science Center's Forensics Unit on the West Coast and the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science's Marine Forensics lab on the East Coast work together to cover the forensic identification needs of NOAA Office of Law Enforcement's civil and criminal investigations of seafood fraud. Their genetic analysis of evidence requires databases of DNA of known species. Since many public DNA databases lack the verification and critical sample information necessary for forensic casework, these labs have developed their own in-house databases for marine species. In addition, in collaboration with the University of Washington, the Northwest Center's lab has established a forensic voucher collection for marine fish. This collection is linked to the Barcode of Life, an international DNA barcoding effort, and is available to the public.

The FDA shares an interest in seafood fraud cases that involve food safety (as opposed to economic or resource management) concerns. Working with the Smithsonian Institution, the FDA has developed a regulatory database of DNA sequences for hundreds of popular seafood species. This library is also available to the public and outside laboratories. The FDA also recently announced that it will expand its use of DNA testing in its inspections of seafood suppliers.

While consumers cannot send their own samples to NOAA or the FDA, they can file a complaint if they believe fraud has taken place and the agencies may then conduct an investigation.

Private labs are also getting into the niche business of DNA testing of seafood as government agencies likely cannot monitor the entire market, and the seafood industry might start seeking out these services, especially as the technology improves, costs go down, and customer concern increases.

A self-policing seafood industry

Fishmonger stands guard at the fish market

Members of the National Fisheries Institute, the leading trade group promoting seafood in the United States, have pledged to abide by "industry principles of economic integrity by not selling seafood that is short in weight or count, that has the wrong name, or that has been transshipped from one country to another to circumvent duties and tariffs." The National Fisheries Institute set up the Better Seafood Board disclaimer in 2007 to support the commitment of its members to stamp out seafood fraud. The Board provides a self-policing mechanism for the seafood industry, enabling buyers of seafood (restaurants, retail operations, producers, and processors) to report suppliers committing seafood fraud. The Board documents these issues; the government and consumers can use this information to ensure seafood sold in the United States is safe, legal, and properly labeled. Make sure you're purchasing seafood that came from a Better Seafood Board member.

From boat to throat

Offloading catch

The ability to really know where your seafood comes from, from the point of harvest to when it reaches your plate, is becoming a reality; and, it's widely seen as an effective way to combat seafood fraud. Regulators and industry alike are implementing systems that track and trace products throughout the supply chain, ensuring consumer confidence in the safety and legality of their seafood along the way. For example, Gulf Wilddisclaimer tags red snapper and grouper harvested in the Gulf of Mexico with unique numbers so that seafood buyers and sellers can track each fish all the way back to the fisherman that caught it. The system assures them that these oft-substituted fish are genuine and the exact fish they're paying for, resolving any fraud issues. Another program, Gulf Seafood Trace disclaimer, integrates an electronic Trip Ticket system with an electronic traceability system to capture and share key information about fisheries products as they move throughout the supply chain, from the point of harvest to the consumer. The systems' data check and confirmation components verify this information and the seafood's origin, ensuring confidence in the market.