The $5.98 bag of bay scallops at Walmart, distributed by Eastern Fisheries in New Bedford, had the highest moisture content of the samples tested by the Globe: 91 percent. Eastern Fisheries, which handles approximately 20 million pounds of scallops each year, according to the company’s website, declined comment.
There are some signs that suggest scallops may have been treated: Excess water leaches out when cooked, discolorations can appear on seafood, and the shellfish do not sear as well as they should. But it’s essentially impossible to detect when scallops are in a package or behind the seafood counter.
Dianna Gee, a Walmart corporate spokeswoman, said both the Walmart and Sam’s Club chains require suppliers to comply with regulatory standards. (Scallops tested from Sam’s Club had 86 percent water content). Gee said the company contacted vendors about the Globe results and hired an independent lab to go out to stores and randomly test products the newspaper identified. “It is our expectation that our customers are getting the value they deserve,” Gee said. “So if our testing results indicate otherwise, we will take the appropriate action.”
William Woo, of Kam Man, a regional Asian grocery chain, said the company is concerned by the Globe’s results. “We don’t want our consumers to be shortchanged,” Woo said.
UL-STR, which is registered with the FDA, conducted moisture testing on scallops at its Canton lab based on industry standards. The process involves thawing and draining the scallops, then placing them in a specialized oven. Hot air is forced into the oven to dry moisture until a constant weight is achieved.
The US scallop industry is estimated to be a $1 billion business annually, with many of the largest processors located in New Bedford. Some of these companies came under scrutiny for selling underweight seafood several years ago. At the time, the American Scallop Association promised it would launch a self-policing program.
Ross Paasche , the association president, said that effort never took off. “We talked about some type of inspection but it didn’t seem viable to have competitors walk into competitors’ plants,” he said.
Paasche said natural scallops should have a moisture content below 83 percent, and those with higher levels should be labeled as water-added.
John Sackton, publisher of Seafoodnews.com, an online industry newsletter, said moisture-retaining agents do serve a legitimate purpose, to prevent fish from losing liquid as it thaws, but the process also makes a huge price difference.
“You can reduce cost by 25 percent by adding a few percent water,” Sackton said. “The problem is there is a fine line between doing that at a relatively insignificant level to protect quality and going way beyond that to sell more water.”