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GAO Study: Fragmented Oversight Leads to Fishy Seafood Deals

It’s due in part to lack of standards and coordination among the various federal agencies that oversee seafood, according to a report released this month by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Sometimes excessive amounts of water, ice or breading are added to increase weight, sometimes seafood is shipped through an intermediate country to avoid customs duties, and sometimes packages are labeled as containing more seafood than they actually do, called short-weighting, according to the report. And species substitution – selling cheap fish, often in fillet form, as more expensive species — is occurring with increasing frequency, according to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek in a USA Today report.

When such substitutions occur farther up the seafood supply chain, distributors, as the last link in the chain to the operator, can be implicated. Such was the case in 2006, when a Sysco operating company in Florida came under intense scrutiny following a newspaper investigation that uncovered product sold as higher-priced grouper was a cheaper species of fish. Sysco Food Services – West Coast Florida Inc., maintained it did not knowingly substitute any species for grouper, but last fall agreed to a settlement in which it would donate $100,000 worth of food to local soup kitchens and charities, and pay $200,000 to reimburse the state for its investigative costs and fees.

The company also reduced the number of its grouper suppliers from 14 to three to control quality. It is also testing those suppliers more frequently and developing more accurate species samples to improve the reliability of tests, the company said at the time.

The GAO report notes that seafood companies routinely receive written solicitations to buy fraudulent products. But the report says that when the National Fisheries Institute forwarded several solicitations to the FDA last year, the agency took no action.

Consumers who called the FDA after buying mislabeled seafood also reportedly got nowhere. One consumer complained about frozen shrimp labeled as a product of Mexico that had a second label underneath indicating it was a product of Thailand.

The USA Today’s article noted that the FDA wouldn't comment directly on the report, but Kwisnek did say that "resource constraints have forced the FDA to prioritize food safety issues above issues of economic fraud."

Two other federal agencies also oversee seafood. The Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection agency focuses on detecting schemes by seafood importers to avoid paying duty. The National Marine Fisheries Service of the Department of Commerce maintains a fee-for-service program, paid for by retailers, which inspects one-third of the seafood consumed in the USA.

The report recommends that the FDA include species fraud in its safety rules and increase interagency collaboration. For example, the FDA, Customs and Border Protection and the National Marine Fisheries Service are each building separate DNA libraries to determine the species of seafood samples rather than sharing the DNA sequences.

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