IDENTIFYING SEAFOOD FRAUD: A COMMON PRACTICE WITH SERIOUS CONSEQUENCES

Snapper at the market

These days, we're all concerned about common types of fraud like identity theft and investment scams, but did you ever think you'd have to worry about being swindled with shrimp, snapper, or sea bass? When you purchase seafood, you expect that it will be what the label says it is. Unfortunately, studies and investigations are finding that this is not always the case—various types of "seafood fraud" are being committed along the seafood supply chain.

 

Seafood fraud happens for a variety of reasons, from simple misunderstanding or lack of information to blatantly deceiving consumers to increase profits, or even worse, laundering illegally harvested seafood. Regardless of the reason, seafood fraud is illegal and can have serious consequences for fish, fishermen, fishmongers, and fish-eaters.

Seafood substitution—
the old "bait and switch"

This is the best known type of seafood fraud. Once fish is filleted and skinned, it can be difficult to determine what species it actually is. Some sellers take advantage of this and substitute a low-valued species for a more expensive species, for example, passing off catfish as grouper. In response to reports that seafood in the United States has been mislabeled, the FDA began to conduct DNA testing on fish to determine the accuracy of the market names on their labels. FDA’s sampling and testing found that fish species are correctly labeled 85 percent of the time. So while the “bait and switch” might be the most well-known type of seafood fraud, it is not necessarily the most common.

Seafood short-weighting—
the scam at the scales

Less known, but far more common, is another type of seafood fraud—short-weighting. Short-weighting occurs when processors misrepresent the weight of a seafood product through practices such as overglazing, soaking, and breading. Processors will often add a layer of ice or a preservative to keep a seafood product fresh, a normal and legal practice. However, when a processor uses excess ice (overglazing) or additives (soaking) and includes their weight with the net weight of the seafood, that's fraud. Consumers should only pay for the weight of the seafood alone. Short-weighting basically charges consumers more for less seafood.

Mislabeling seafood—
trickery in the global seafood trade

Seafood is the most traded food commodity in the world. Unfortunately, the globalization and complexity of the seafood trade creates opportunities for fraud. Sometimes other qualities of seafood are mislabeled in addition to the species name, such as the country of origin, to avoid regulations and fees or even sneak illegally-caught fish into the supply chain. This can occur through:

  • Transshipping—when seafood products are exported through different countries to avoid duties and tariffs
  • At-sea transfers—when illegal fishing vessels transfer their catch to cargo vessels carrying legitimately caught seafood
  • Falsifying trade documents

Mislabeling seafood and concealing illegally caught fish evades inspection fees, permits, and other business costs that affect the price of responsibly-caught seafood. Mislabeling can even threaten public health. For example, in 2007 several serious illnesses resulted from the illegal importation of toxic pufferfish that had been mislabeled as monkfish to circumvent U.S. import restrictions for this product.

By creating a market for illegally caught products, mislabeling seafood can hurt our oceans, potentially undermining conservation efforts in place to protect fish, other marine species, and their habitats. This also provides unfair competition for law-abiding fishermen and prevents consumers from making eco-friendly choices.

Combating Seafood Fraud

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of seafood fraud and it consequences. Thankfully, our commitment to and ability to fight fraud is stronger than ever. With new and growing partnerships and evolving technologies, consumers should be more confident that they're not getting conned at the fish counter and that their seafood is safe and properly labeled.

Learn more about combating seafood fraud.