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.
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Explore This IssueDecember/January 2020
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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.
Substitution within the supply chain, especially for imported seafood, is also a concern. Shipments just of the raw commodity are often made up of many harvest events. These combined lots go to several points for further processing and are sometime comingled with other lots, all prior to entry into the United States. This comingling can hide illegally harvested fish within a legal harvest. The various steps of processing and comingling can make it difficult to determine the legality of the fish entering the U.S.
All indications are that species substitution is a low percentage of seafood entering into the United States, although the lot sizes can be large. Where species substitution is a problem is at the retail counter. In this scenario it doesn’t appear to be intentional, so it becomes a mislabeling concern.
Species substitution also occurs at the border ports to get around a particular tariff. Claiming a shipment of tilapia is grouper could be done to try and keep that naming throughout the sale, thereby netting a greater increase in revenue for the seller. But claiming a shipment of Vietnamese catfish is tilapia could be a way to not pay the tariff fees on the catfish species or to get around any particular import quota. Ultimately there’s a net gain in that fish that wouldn’t enter the country or would enter at a higher price could now be sold.
Finally, improper labeling is also a means to hide the actual processor. This could manifest itself in one firm selling its premade cans for canned tuna to another firm with the can code present. This would mean the codes would identify the original firm so that it’s possible for the second firm to sell its product even if they are on a detention list. The product is still safe to consume but is illegally or improperly entering the country.
Keeping Up with Seafood Fraud
A high majority of the seafood products consumed in the United States are imported, with the numbers varying from 80 to 90 percent, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. The United States is also one of the largest exporters of seafood in the world. In general, fish and fishery products are one of the highest traded commodities. There are hundreds of species in various product forms. These products originate from countries with wide-ranging infrastructures, capabilities, and controls. Seafood mislabeling is extremely challenging for law enforcement as over half of the world’s fish production is processed at sea or soon after landing, as noted in a 2009 FAO report. This could render the species unidentifiable without forensics. Also, the farther a fish gets from harvest, the more likely it is to be mislabeled.
The main authority to prevent seafood fraud in the United States belongs to the FDA under the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The National Marine Fisheries Service has also utilized the Lacey Act, a federal law protecting wildlife, in appropriate situations to address fraudulently labeled seafood imports. The Customs and Border Patrol works with federal agencies to assist in managing, and at times halting, illegal or unacceptable shipments entering the United States. The federal authorities work with state and local regulators to address issues between states and at retail and food service locations. This cooperation no longer rests upon government agencies alone. The various third-party registration systems being utilized by the industry are also working now to address food fraud as part of their standards and audits. End-to-end traceability using digital means may be a solution.
The issue of food fraud continues to get worse as unscrupulous players find new and innovative ways to cheat. Current enforcement strategies aren’t keeping up and many food fraud penalties are minor. Every country addresses adulteration and misrepresentation, but fraud often isn’t handled at the same level unless food safety is also compromised. Many agencies have limited budget resources and must focus on food safety out of necessity. The growing trend of e-commerce is complicating the situation even more, making it very difficult to trace back violations. Too many people are involved in the supply chain, forcing those businesses that want to fight fraud to end up support it in some way just to stay in business. The good news is that many businesses, organizations, and governments on an international level want to eliminate food fraud and are finding ways to communicate and work together to solve this global concern.
Wilson is director of seafood commerce and certification at the Office of International Affairs and Seafood Inspection at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.