The FDA, which oversees labeling of imported and domestically shipped fish, has not made overglazing and seafood substitution a priority, according to a Government Accountability Office report issued in 2009.
A five-month investigation by the Globe, published last fall, revealed some wholesalers, grocery stores, and restaurants in Massachusetts were substituting less expensive species for more desirable fish and that consumers routinely bought seafood different from what was advertised.
Most complaints the FDA receives on underweight fish come from businesses that have received offers from foreign distributors to provide fish with excess ice glazing. But the government can’t take action based solely on a solicitation, according to Peter N. Koufopoulos, chief of the FDA’s seafood processing and technology policy branch.
Between 2009 and 2010, the agency sent warning letters to two domestic seafood processors that supplied fish with inaccurate net weights. But repeated problems with domestic distributors and fish weights indicate inconsistent oversight.
Eastern Fisheries and Gonsalves came under scrutiny for misstating weights in 2010 during a multistate investigation by consumer protection bureaus into seafood fraud.
Inspectors in Wisconsin found all nine Eastern Fisheries’ sole fillets they tested were underweight. The company, which declined to comment for this report, paid a fine of about $14,000. In Connecticut, state inspectors discovered ice glazing on packaged frozen seafood can significantly affect how much product consumers get for their money. Half of the seafood packages tested in 2010 were underweight: In all, 847 packages were taken off the shelves in Connecticut, including 22 fish samples from Gonsalves that were found to have too much glaze. The company was fined $3,870.
Massachusetts did not participate in that investigation, but the state Division of Standards said it conducts random weight testing on fish every few years. Inspectors have discovered few problems, and none with Eastern Fisheries or Gonsalves.
At Market Basket, where 13 of 18 squid and mackerel packages had too much glaze, according to the recent Globe testing, the company pulled the products from shelves. The supermarket chain, headquartered in Tewskbury, said it is conducting tests on additional Gonsalves fish products, as well as checking Market Basket’s private label seafood, and fish it buys from other vendors.
“It’s opened our eyes. Some of these products have been with us for 20 to 30 years and we typically do net weight tests for new items,” said David McLean, operations manager at Market Basket. “We’ve put [Gonsalves] on notice that they should be testing their products and providing independent results.”
At Save-A-Lot, where 12 of 20 squid and mackerel packages tested had excess glaze, company officials said they were unaware of the problem. “It is never our intention to mislead our customers with regards to any items purchased in our stores,” said Chon Tomlin, a spokeswoman for the chain, which is owned by SuperValu, the conglomerate that operates Shaw’s and Star Market stores. “Save-A-Lot places trust in the product packaging standards of the vendor.”
Gonsalves, in a subsequent interview, said he stopped shipping frozen squid and mackerel to supermarkets after learning of the Globe results and is conducting tests to determine how much extra fish he needs to add to packages to resolve the weight problem. But he said the issue is bigger than his firm, and more enforcement is needed to make sure weights are consistent industry-wide.
“Nobody really wants to ask for more government regulation, but it’s the only way I can see this issue getting resolved — if there is a level playing field and every importer and packer had to sell net weight,” Gonsalves said. “Otherwise, there is going to be temptation to reap the benefits if there is no routine inspection.”
Jenn Abelson can be reached at email@example.com. Globe correspondent Gail Waterhouse contributed to this report.