An increasing number of recalls and cases involving adulteration of products such as infant formula, peanuts, and salami have eroded consumer confidence and put product fraud in the media spotlight. According to a study by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and the GMA Science and Education Foundation, food product fraud may cost the food industry $10 to $15 billion per year. The melamine contamination of milk products, which cost the industry $10 billion and affected almost 300,000 consumers around the world, illustrated the global market consequences of product fraud.
Explore this issueJune/July 2010
Product fraud can be classified as either counterfeiting or economically motivated adulteration (EMA). While counterfeiting is the unauthorized representation of a registered trademark with the intent to deceive the purchaser, EMA is defined as the intentional fraudulent modification of a finished product for economic gain. Such adulteration manifests itself in many ways, including substitution of a lesser value ingredient.
Perhaps the most pervasive and widely publicized example of EMA by substitution is the replacement of high-value species of fish with those of low value (see “Fishy Business” on p. 12 of this issue). Increased international trade, rising worldwide fish and seafood consumption, and varying levels of supply and demand of certain species drive this practice.1 The Internet is rife with news reports of restaurants and fish markets serving fish that turn out to be a different species than the one advertised.
Red snapper is one type of fish that is often replaced with a lesser-value species. One investigation found that the red snapper sushi served at 14 different restaurants was actually a different species at all 14. Another examination found that of eight red snapper sushi samples tested, six were tilapia, a less expensive fish, and one was white bass. Only one was red snapper. Testing of red snapper at four restaurants and 10 grocery stores found that half of the restaurant samples and six of the grocery store samples were mislabeled.
A study by Therion International, a company that provides testing to determine the genetic identity of animals, determined that 19 of 39 restaurant samples were a less expensive species than red snapper, including tilapia and even horse mackerel. In fact, a survey by the National Marine Fisheries Service National Seafood Inspection Laboratory (NSIL) found that 80% of red snapper was mislabeled. The problem is not limited to red snapper, and it is not new; an NSIL study conducted from 1988 through 1997 found that 34% of tested seafood products were mislabeled (http://fshn.ifas.ufl.edu/seafood/sst/22ndAnn/file08.pdf).
The fish substitution problem is a serious one. In addition to the financial damage and loss of confidence it wreaks on the commercial market, it also puts consumers at risk of purchasing potentially harmful products and reduces the effectiveness of marine conservation and management programs that help protect ocean habitats and endangered species. Any fish species that appears to be readily available in the marketplace can create the public impression that there is a plentiful supply of that fish in the sea, but this perception may belie the true state of the fisheries’ stock.
In fact, a survey by the National Marine Fisheries Service National Seafood Inspection Laboratory (NSIL) found that 80% of red snapper was mislabeled. The problem is not limited to red snapper, and it is not new; an NSIL study conducted from 1988 through 1997 found that 34% of tested seafood products were mislabeled.
Industry Fights Fraud
The seafood industry plays a role in detecting and preventing seafood fraud because maintaining consumer confidence in seafood products is essential. Economic fraud in the industry, of which EMA is just one piece, erodes consumer trust in the product category, creates unfair economic advantages for companies willing to perform illegal acts, and promotes success through rule-breaking. Seafood industry associations represent various aspects of the industry throughout the supply chain, from harvesters to retailers, and include associations such as the National Restaurant Association and the National Fisheries Institute (NFI).