Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Regulation Isn't Fishy

Posted on Sun, Oct. 18, 2009 11:08 PM
In Seafood Industry, Regulation Isn't Fishy
The Kansas City Star
Breaking News
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The problem is seafood sold at less than the weight listed on the package, which an industry gathering earlier this year described as “premeditated, organized and intentional” fraud.

Industry groups want regulators to be more aggressive in helping curb the abuse, which has some seafood selling at 10 to 35 percent less than its labeled weight. Though it’s difficult to say just how widespread shortweighting is, the industry fears the losses are substantial for honest vendors and for consumers, given that nearly $23 billion in seafood was sold in the U.S. last year.

“We want to shine a light on this so we can get rid of it,” said Gavin Gibbons, a spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, the country’s largest seafood trade group, whose members include chain restaurants, wholesalers and fishermen.

The U.S. consumes 5 billion pounds of seafood a year, 80 percent of it imported and most of it frozen. That makes the industry and consumers particularly vulnerable because a package that says, for example, 10 pounds of shrimp is supposed to contain 10 pounds of shrimp — plus any ice. But without a careful thawing, draining and weighing, it’s nearly impossible to tell whether excess ice could be cheating the buyer.

On top of that, the Food and Drug Administration inspects only 2 percent of seafood and focuses on food safety more than possible underweighting.

There are signs the industry’s message is being heard, as the FDA says it is considering a tougher approach and recently issued a warning about ice being wrongly included in listed weights.

“We do take economic fraud seriously,” said Stephanie Kwisnek, a FDA spokeswoman.

State regulators also are looking at the issue, though only a few states routinely check the weight of seafood, in part because it takes special equipment and can be expensive.

Neither Kansas nor Missouri currently performs the tests, but Ron Hayes, Missouri’s division director for weights and measures, said the seafood issue was only recently brought to his agency’s attention.

“Very likely we’ll be doing some testing,” he said.

The nature of the seafood business has long made it vulnerable to some forms of deception, such as substituting a cheaper species of fish for one that can snare a higher price, or making up names that suggest a better — and more expensive — product. Earlier this year, for instance, federal regulators said that calling Vietnamese catfish “white roughy” was misleading.

As for shortweighting, it’s difficult to say how common the problem is because of the lack of comprehensive data, the Government Accountability Office said in a recent report.

But the Better Seafood Board, another industry group seeking to stamp out the fraud, says the practice has become so brazen that one Chinese supplier offered wholesalers three different prices for channel catfish. The more deceptive the weight of a package, the cheaper the price was for a “pound” of fish.

Similar solicitations are appearing in California, which has inspected seafood for decades, said Kurt Floren, who is in charge of weights and measures for Los Angeles County. He said that he first saw evidence of shortweighting more than a decade ago and that awareness of the problem is increasing.
Some Kansas City area wholesalers said they also knew that shortweighted product was available from some suppliers, but they refused to buy it.

Wisconsin is another state that checks for underweighted seafood, and regulators there say they have found “quite a bit of it,” with packages of frozen seafood getting as much as 25 percent of their weight from ice.

“I think it’s a significant problem,” said Judy Cardin, chief of weights and measures for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

An ice glaze is typically applied to help protect seafood from dehydration and freezer burn. But more glaze than needed can be applied, and in any case none of the ice is supposed to be counted as part of the seafood’s weight.

The American Frozen Food Institute, which represents companies that sell frozen seafood, said it was monitoring the issue but had not decided whether there’s a problem that needs increased regulation.

But the industry gathering earlier this year, which a representative of the Frozen Food Institute attended, came to a different conclusion. More than two dozen people representing industry groups, wholesale seafood companies, and state and federal regulators attended the “seafood forum” in May at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a federal agency in Gaithersburg, Md.

According to the memorandum summarizing the meeting, there was consensus that shortweighting of seafood was occurring not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well. The summary said further that a concerted effort is needed, including more regulation and consumer education about the fraud.

Industry groups at the forum argued that checking for economic fraud could also improve food safety, because a company that cheated on weight might be more likely to also breach food safety rules.

FDA officials at the forum promised to consider whether such a link existed between food safety and shortweighting.

Perhaps most important for the industry groups, it said it would consider making economic fraud a larger part of its seafood enforcement strategy.

So far, the FDA hasn’t put more resources into inspections for shortweighting, but the industry groups want it to follow through.

“They have a role to play,” said Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute. “That’s what we pay taxes for.”

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