It looked like another Market Basket bargain: a 1.5-pound bag of mackerel fillets for $3.69. But the package contained more than 2 ounces of ice.
An enticing offer at Save-A-Lot turned out to be an even worse deal. Ice accounted for nearly three of the 19 ounces of squid tubes going for $3.79 at the discount grocery store.
Both watered-down packages came from the Henry Gonsalves Co., a Rhode Island food supplier that repeatedly sold underweight frozen fish to local supermarket chains, according to a Boston Globe investigation. About two-thirds of the Gonsalves fish tested weighed less than the package label indicated.
The underweight seafood from Gonsalves is part of a persistent problem in the industry, though the company says any mislabeling is unintentional. Typically, frozen seafood is coated with ice to keep it fresh and minimize freezer burn. Some businesses in the supply chain add extra ice and include it in the weight declared on the label. Retailers end up charging for the water, and shoppers pay more money for less fish.
While individual shoppers are shortchanged in small increments, cumulatively, excess water in seafood is a serious issue, said Lisa Weddig of the National Fisheries Institute, a Virginia-based trade organization.
“Rather than looking at this as 30 cents here and 30 cents there, we should be looking at this as a $69 billion seafood industry and these practices could be costing the industry and consumers tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in the end,’’ Weddig said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs a seafood inspection program, said it finds economic fraud in at least 40 percent of products voluntarily submitted to the agency for testing by processors and other businesses. At least eight out of 10 cases involve inaccurate weights, according to Steven Wilson, chief quality officer of NOAA’s seafood inspection program.
A Globe survey of 43 seafood samples from supermarkets across Massachusetts showed about 1 in 5 glazed with ice weighed less than the net weight stated on the label, which is supposed to exclude packaging and glaze. For example, scallops sold at a Walmart store weighed roughly 13 ounces, not the 16 ounces listed. Crab meat at Kyler’s Catch in New Bedford, labeled as 6 ounces, weighed 5 ounces. The newspaper hired an independent lab to weigh the fish after removing the glaze.
The Globe then conducted a months-long examination of three local seafood suppliers. Dozens of additional samples from five supermarkets that use those suppliers were collected and sent to the lab to be weighed.
Gonsalves had the most pervasive problems: About 66 percent of the 38 Gonsalves fish samples from Market Basket and Save-A-Lot supermarkets weighed less than was stated on labels, according to results from UL-STR, the Canton lab hired by the Globe.
The US Food and Drug Administration requires food labels to have the proper weight, but state and federal officials who conduct weight tests permit variances. The results of testing on Gonsalves fish were far outside those allowances.
Henry Gonsalves, president of Henry Gonsalves Co., said overglazing is endemic to the industry. He said his firm, which sells about $10 million worth of seafood annually, buys mackerel and frozen squid in bulk and workers at the company’s Smithfield headquarters hand-fill bags of the already-glazed fish. The business also sells fish to chains such as Shaw’s and Stop & Shop.
Gonsalves said he tries to make up for the ice glaze by putting more fish in packages, usually several ounces above the net weight listed. But he conceded that the Globe testing suggests he is falling short in some cases.
Eastern Fisheries in New Bedford, the world’s largest supplier of scallops, distributed the Walmart sea scallops that weighed about 13 ounces, not 16 ounces as labeled. Additional testing found bay scallops in three of 10 bags from a Worcester Walmart weighed less than the 16 ounces listed on the package, but were within half an ounce of the declared weight.
High Liner Foods USA, based in Danvers, was the only distributor whose weights tested accurately in all cases. Company president Keith A. Decker said fish is individually quick frozen and then moved through or dipped in a water tank. Workers bag and weigh the fish by hand, and regularly monitor weights on the production floor. “We try to achieve 100 percent of declared weight,’’ he said.
UL-STR, which is registered with the FDA, conducted the testing based on industry standards known as the AOAC Official Methods of Analysis. The process involves removing seafood from the package, placing it on a sieve, spraying it with cold water, draining the product, and transferring it to a dry tray for weighing.
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.’’