WASHINGTON — Fish sold on U.S. retail markets are routinely mislabeled, harming consumers while threatening the livelihoods of American fishermen, Democratic Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Republican Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi said in a letter to President Barack Obama.
Calling government efforts to combat the problem “woefully inadequate,” they appealed to the president last week to order better coordination among federal agencies, including beefing up inspections of seafood imports, which dominate the market.
“The urgent need to fight seafood fraud and establish a standard of traceability can be met only through coordinated interagency action, and it is time for the agencies to come together to find solutions,” the senators said in their bipartisan request.
Fraudulent labeling can pass off less expensive seafood as more costly varieties, or even can launder an illegally caught fish into the legal supply chain.
In a recent nationwide study of seafood mislabeling, the nonprofit group Oceana reported that tests showed that a third of the samples of commonly swapped and regionally significant species were mislabeled. Rates of mislabeling for some popular species, such as red snapper and white tuna, ranged as high as 94 percent and 84 percent, respectively.
Although imports account for more than 90 percent of the seafood Americans consume, the foreign catch almost never is inspected for fraud or legality, Wicker and Markey wrote. They complained that the multiple federal regulatory agencies that are tasked with fighting fraud aren’t coordinating their efforts.
The lawmakers pointed to a 2009 audit by the Government Accountability Office that highlighted problems, including poor communication and duplication, among the three agencies that have primary jurisdiction over seafood fraud: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Customs and Border Protection bureau of the Department of Homeland Security.
The GAO found that the FDA inspects less than 2 percent of imported seafood, and almost none of those examinations focus on fraud or legality. It also cited instances in which the FDA had inspected facilities without knowing that NOAA inspectors already had visited them.
Wicker and Markey urged Obama to request interagency rules that would improve inspections and communication and would establish a national standard for “traceability” of seafood products. Consumers, they wrote, should have access to information about the origins of seafood.
“These immediate, concrete actions will help reduce the incidence of fraud in the seafood supply and will restore consumer confidence that their seafood is safe, legally caught and honestly labeled,” they wrote.
This is the latest salvo from Markey in a fight against fish fraud. As member of the U.S. House, he introduced his “SAFE Seafood Act” in 2012 to crack down on foreign fish fraudsters, increase inspection regimes, and provide agencies with the resources to enforce laws that would protect American fishermen from fraud. Sen. Wicker is a cosponsor of the “SAFE Seafood Act.”
Greg Gordon is reporter for the McClatchy Washington Bureau (MCT).