Add another powerful political voice urging the Food and Drug Administration to better combat rampant seafood mislabeling in restaurants and stores.
This time, U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer of California has written a strongly worded letter to FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg asking her to better deal with alarmingly high incidences of seafood fraud. Other politicians, including U.S. Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts who has co-authored a sweeping bill to stop mislabeling, have made similar pleas to the agency.
“It is unacceptable that proven fraud is occurring on such a widespread basis,’’ the Democrat wrote. “Seafood fraud is not only deceptive marketing, but it can also pose serious health concerns, particularly for pregnant women seeking to limit exposure to heavy metals or individuals with serious allergies to certain types of fish.”
The Boston Globe published a series on seafood mislabeling last year called “Fishy Business”. The five-month investigation found that Massachusetts consumers routinely and unknowingly overpay for less desirable fish. The Globe targeted fish most likely to be mislabeled from more than 100 restaurants, grocery stores, and seafood markets and DNA tested them. The investigated found that 48 percent of 183 samples turned out to be a different species than what was advertised.
Oceana, an environmental advocacy group, has been working to end seafood fraud and has also DNA-tested fish collected from numerous grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues across the country. In Miami and Fort Lauderdale, 31 percent of the seafood tested by the group was mislabeled. In Los Angeles and Orange counties, 55 percent of the seafood tested was mislabeled.
Some 91 percent of seafood U.S. consumers eat today is imported but a 2009 Government Accountability Office report found that only two percent of all imports are inspected by the FDA and just .01 are inspected specifically for mislabeling. The FDA has recently launched a program to DNA test fish coming into ports, but it is unclear what percentage they are testing. A call to the FDA was not immediately returned.
Here is the letter:
October 15, 2012
The Honorable Margaret Hamburg, M.D.
Food and Drug Administration
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
10903 New Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring, MD 20993
Dear Dr. Hamburg:
I am writing to alert you to the alarmingly high occurrence of seafood fraud in our nation’s seafood products, and to request that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) strengthen its enforcement against this problem.
Seafood fraud is the mislabeling of one species of fish for another fish that is often cheaper and more readily available. Recent studies suggest this may be a pervasive practice in the United States. Since 2011, Oceana has collected fish samples from numerous grocery stores, restaurants, and sushi venues in different metropolitan areas and has had them genetically tested to determine their composition. A strikingly high percentage of these samples were mislabeled according to Federal guidelines: nearly 20 percent of the 88 samples tested in Boston, Massachusetts (and a separate study by the Boston Globe found an even higher percentage: 48 percent of 183 samples); 55 percent of the 119 samples tested in Los Angeles and Orange counties, California; and 31 percent of the 96 samples tested in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. These studies support research by the University of British Columbia and the University College Dublin, which have found common seafood species such as red snapper, wild salmon, and Atlantic cod to be mislabeled in 24 to 70 percent of the samples tested.
It is unacceptable that proven fraud is occurring on such a widespread basis. Seafood fraud is not only deceptive marketing, but it can also pose serious health concerns, particularly for pregnant women seeking to limit exposure to heavy metals or individuals with serious allergies to certain types of fish. Oceana’s investigations in Southern Florida found a case in which a fish sold as grouper was actually king mackerel, a fish that federal and state authorities warn women of childbearing age not to eat due to high mercury levels, which can harm a developing fetus. Oceana also found that all samples of white tuna tested in their Florida study were actually escolar, a species that can cause severe digestive upset. Consumers should not have to question the safety of their seafood.
Currently, 86 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. originates overseas, yet the Government Accountability Office (GAO) noted in a 2009 report that the FDA inspects only two percent of all seafood imports, and only 0.01 percent is explicitly inspected for fraud or mislabeling. With such a high prevalence of seafood mislabeling, consumers cannot adequately protect themselves from fish originating in regions where health concerns exist.
Seafood fraud not only misleads the consumer, but by undermining consumer confidence in the seafood industry, it also harms the many fishermen and seafood-related businesses that are honest brokers. Many participants in the seafood industry have voluntarily undertaken efforts to improve the integrity of seafood sourcing and encourage best business practices at all levels in the chain of commerce. However, uniform, national standards and enforcement are necessary to ensure the safety of consumers throughout our country.
The FDA has the authority to inspect domestic and imported seafood to detect for fraud, yet very few inspections are conducted for this purpose. I understand that the FDA has recently increased its testing for seafood mislabeling, and I appreciate those efforts, but I believe we need to do more. Seafood can follow a complex path from the point when it is caught to the point when it is sold to a consumer, making it difficult to isolate the point where fraud occurs. To effectively address this problem, we need better traceability and enforcement throughout the entire chain of sale, from bait to plate.
To better understand the scope of this problem and explore some possible solutions, I respectfully request answers to the attached list of questions. Furthermore, I would like to know what steps you are taking to ensure that there are adequate inspections for seafood mislabeling to assure consumers that their seafood is safe. I look forward to working with you to improve the safety of seafood for American consumers.
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