By Steven Hedlund
Published on Wednesday, January 26, 2011
Cheating, unfortunately, is a way of the life in the global seafood trade. Whether it’s adulteration of seafood species names, actual weight or country of origin, unscrupulous companies are constantly cutting corners to inflate prices and fatten their bottom lines.
For sincere companies that play by the rules, cheating is infuriating, not only because it gives their competition an edge but also because the rules are rarely enforced. Often, federal and state officials don’t possess the time and resources to follow up on allegations of cheating, let alone punish the offenders accordingly.
One company, however, is taking matters into its own hands by promoting education. This week, Tradex Foods of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, launched a program called School of Fish designed to teach seafood sales reps to recognize and prevent deceptive practices such as excessive soaking using sodium tripolyphosphate, over-glazing, married fillets, untrimmed frill and species substitution. The program features a 55-minute, 25-chapter DVD.
SeafoodSource recently caught up with Robert Reierson, president and CEO of Tradex Foods, to talk about the School of Fish program and just how prevalent fraud is in the seafood business.
Editor’s note: Learn more about fraud — and how SeafoodSource.com and SeaFood Business magazine can help you prevent it — be reading SeaFood Business Associate Editor James Wright’s 13 January commentary “Unite in the fight against fraud.”
Just how big of a problem is fraud? Would you call it the No. 1 challenge facing the global seafood trade?
I would say it’s close to No. 1. I’d go so far as to say that it’s destroying per-capita [seafood] consumption. It’s not just small companies. There are major companies doing stuff that’s totally deceptive. And it’s time that [offenders are] called to the carpet. I don’t care who they are — a leading brand or a non-leading brand. There needs to be a blacklist of [offenders]. Internally, we have a blacklist. We test everyone’s product. We bring it to our lab, test it and find out what’s going on.
What prompted you to create the School of Fish program?
We have an office in China with six full-time employees; four are inspectors who sit on our lines. We have a full-time employee in Vietnam who’s an inspector, who also supervises our production. I go [to Asia] all the time, and I see how other [companies] pack product. And I come back here and see how we suffer as a company because we won’t pack an 80 percent net-weight product. We won’t do these things, and it creates an unbalanced playing field. So I thought, “The only way I can balance the playing field is by educating people.” We need to educate the sales reps, so they can educate the chefs. And that’s basis of the program — to level the playing field and educate the industry.
The real frontline people are the sales reps. Sysco, I think, has 8,000 sales reps, and those 8,000 sales reps are selling 10,000 line items or more. And for them to spend 20 minutes on seafood, which may be 10 percent of their total order, is not going to happen. For the little time they spend on seafood, they should know what they’re talking about. We’re trying to make it as simple as possible.
Are federal and state officials stepping up their efforts to clamp down on cheaters?
I believe that North America is starting to catch wind of it. Their governments are finally making a move — the Canadian government seems more aggressive than the U.S. government, though. But I do believe that we’re not even 10 percent of the way there. The European Union isn’t even involved even though [it says] it is. It’s rampant. I can’t compete at all in the EU. You’re not allowed to sell soaked product [in the EU]. In China, they call it an “EU soak” so that it goes undetected. Again, how’s that good for the end consumer?
Of all the types of fraud, which one is the most prevalent?
I would say the falsehood of short-weighting — thinking that the product is short-weight just because of glazing. Short-weighting is still a huge problem, but it’s because of [sodium] tripolyphosphate and throwing excess [pieces of fillets that are] unusable in the boxes.
Is there are a particular deceptive practice that’s causing you to shake your head?
I just heard one where, in order to get more weight in squid tubes, they’re making ice balls that fit inside the tube itself. The squid tube usually collapses when frozen. So they stick this ice ball into it so it looks more like a bell. And it [looks like] an open tube. But you get less weight and more ice. It’s just another creative way [to cheat].