Professional Regulation (DBPR), based in Tallahassee,
publicly posts violations online. In 2010, 186 restaurants
were cited for mislabeling their fish. That number represents
restaurateurs who knowingly substituted a less-expensive fish,
such as escolar for tuna or tilapia for red snapper. While the
fines may not hurt that much—$400 for a first offense, $800
thereafter—the threat of license suspension is real.
But what happens when a chef is sold a fish from his or her
purveyor and unknowingly serves it?
“During our inspections, we check the establishment’s invoices
and product packaging for proper seafood identification,” says
Beth Frady, spokesperson for the DBPR. “For issues involving
incorrect product labeling and invoices, the information is
forwarded to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer
Services for further investigation through the distributor.”
Steve Vilnit, commercial fisheries outreach and marketing
coordinator for Maryland Department of Natural Resources,
Annapolis, Md., spends a lot of time working directly with
chefs and fishermen. He says avoiding seafood fraud often
boils down to having trust in the sources you buy from.
“Chefs want that connection to the water or the farm or whatever
it is. But when it comes to seafood, it’s an industry that’s still
antiquated. We need to figure out ways to get the traceability there
that chefs want,” he says. “The biggest causes of concern are grouper
and snapper, and farm-raised versus wild salmon. Once the skin
is removed, it’s just a fillet, and it’s really tough to tell after that.”
can you trace it?
The desire for better seafood traceability that Vilnit describes
has plenty of folks rallying to fill that niche.
Maybe you’d like to know more about that gorgeous piece of
summer flounder. New England’s Trace and Trust, launched
in 2010, gives you the lowdown. Enter the fish’s ID number
on the group’s website ( http://traceandtrust.com/), and you’ll
pull up a report that identifies the fishermen, the date the fish
was landed and where it’s being sold.
A similar initiative has been launched by Gulf of Mexico
Reef Fish Shareholders’ Alliance. Buy a fish with the Gulf
Wild label, and traceability is in place that will show, for
example, that a particular piece of grouper was caught
sustainably, tagged, and remains traceable all the way to the boat and actual fishermen who harvested it. “One of the challenges for domestic fishermen had been product identification,” says David Krebs, president of the Shareholders’ Alliance. “It was important that we identify ours from what was coming in from overseas, and to show how we were fishing in a responsible way.”
Fishermen themselves aren’t the only ones trying to prevent
mislabeling. Scientists have been sequencing the genes of more
than 8,000 varieties of fish and are compiling them in a library
known as the International Barcode of Life.
And the Food and Drug Administration is also developing a seafood
library housed at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural
History in Washington, D.C. According to Doug Karas, FDA
spokesman, that library will eventually be made publicly available to
other regulatory agencies and private labs for seafood identification.
“The FDA has also purchased the sequencing equipment for nine
FDA field laboratories,” says Karas. “After final proficiency testing
on the equipment, we will be able to use this method on a routine
basis in the field.” (At press time, that was scheduled to happen by
it costs what?
So how much does seafood fraud actually cost? According to
the Oceana report, it can be significant. Some examples include
a case where Vietnamese catfish (also known as basa or tra)
was sold as grouper to skirt tariffs of more than $63 million in
2010. The report also points to catfish being sold as grouper for
up to $25 per meal in cities such as Baltimore, Tampa, Fla., and
Kansas City, Mo. In Ohio, 45,000 pounds of inexpensive oreo
dory from New Zealand was being sold for $150,000 in illegal
profits before government officials stepped in.
So, how best to protect yourself and your customers until DNA
testing becomes more readily available? Ask questions. Read
labels carefully. Establish relationships with purveyors willing to
be transparent in their sourcing. If a low-low price on that wild
salmon or Atlantic cod seems too good to be true, it undoubtedly
is, and may end up costing your business far more in the end.
CALIF.-BASED WRITER CLARE LESCHIN-HOAR’S WORK HAS APPEARED IN THE WALL
S TREET JOURNAL, S C I A M . C O M , SAN DIEGO MAGAZINE, S L A S H F O O D A N D M A N Y M O R E .
VISIT W W W.LESCHIN-HOAR.COM.