Food fraud has been in place since food was first bought and sold. There has always been a party willing to cheat the next to make money. In recent years, food fraud has been part of many discussions whenever a body of the industry or the government has gathered. The Codex Alimentarius Commission, the international body that sets standards for government agencies for trade purposes, is attempting to deal with the subject in its Committee on Food Import and Export Inspection and Certification Systems. There is a discussion of how the ISO 22000, the family of standards on food safety systems management, can best address food fraud. In addition, the Foreign Agriculture Organization recently held a workshop in Rome on the subject that included experts from around the globe. Everyone in the food trade including industry, government, and advocacy groups are concerned, and rightly so.
Seafood Fraud Is A Weighty Problem
The seafood industry is no stranger to fraud. Regulators have been struggling with the issue for many years. The U.S. Government Accountability Office studied seafood fraud in 2009 (GAO-09-258) and found it continues to be a problem and that cooperation between the federal agencies is a must. The fraud typically involves increasing perceived value.
By far the biggest problem of fraud in seafood is added water weight. There are some estimates that over half of some fishery products have added weight at some level. This comes in many forms. Shrimp processors add an ice glaze to protect the shrimp from water loss in the frozen state and from dehydration. This is a good processing practice, but it can be abused. It all depends on how the water is considered in the net weight. If the ice weight is part of the declared label net weight it isn’t unusual for the seller to keep the total net weight to the declared, thereby selling water weight at a higher price. It’s also a practice by some to “overglaze” or add more glaze water than necessary to keep the product costs down. Any of these practices mean the buyer, or consumer, is getting less shrimp for their money.
Another means of adding water is to allow the natural properties of the fishery product to come into play. Soaking shucked scallops in water will permit the scallops to draw in water weight. This action often happens naturally during processing—some water will be drawn up simply by transporting the product down the line using water so allowances must be made. However, this has been helped along by some producers by adding a water retention agent. Doing so lets the scallop soak up much more water in a shorter time. Some producers have been caught leaving the scallops in large totes of water with this agent for days. In this way a scallop can soak up to 50 percent of its weight in water. At $10 or more a pound that water becomes quite expensive.
Finally, it’s common for some fishery products to be injected or tumbled with water and other liquids and flavorings. This is an acceptable practice if there is sufficient time or means to permit the water to drain from the flesh. Not permitting this drainage can, of course, add water weight.
Bait and Switch
Substitution and mislabeling not only defrauds consumers and robs them of their ability to make informed choices, but also harms law-abiding fishermen and the sustainability of domestic fisheries. The substitution of a cheaper, less desirable fish for a more expensive fish in higher demand undercuts the price a fisherman will be paid for the true product. Because the harvest amounts of most fisheries are limited, the law-abiding fishermen cannot make up this price shortfall. This threatens the viability of legitimate commercial fishing enterprises and increases the pressure on managers to raise the harvest limits to unsustainable levels. There’s also a concern if the species involved are allergenic to a segment of the consumer base, making it not only fraud, but also a food safety issue.