Fraud isn’t funny

Having reported on seafood fraud extensively in the past (in June 2007, July 2009 and March 2012), I attended Monday’s International Boston Seafood Show conference, “Seafood Substitution: Efforts and Strategies to Eliminate Mislabeling and Fraud from the Marketplace,” with great interest.

A diverse and experienced panel of speakers was lined up, including a U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) representative, a former fisheries law enforcement officer, the secretary of the Better Seafood Bureau, a federal seafood-inspection officer and an executive from a DNA-identification laboratory that tests suspicious seafood. Everyone brought a unique perspective and expertise that more people in the industry need to hear. 

But panelist Morton Nussbaum, chairman of International Marketing Specialists in West Newton, Mass., was his usual show-stealing self. Nussbaum has relayed several stories to me about his experiences with fraud, both as a veteran seafood importer and as a restaurant lover. He’s a Boston guy, but he also spends a lot of time in Florida, a hotbed for species substitution; it is there that cheaper fish masquerade as regional favorites grouper and snapper. Nussbaum can spin an amusing tale about grouper and pompano dishes that contain neither grouper nor pompano. 

On Monday he told another fish story, one with a frustrating ending. He wanted to try a new restaurant near his office last fall and was convinced that the USD 19.99 fried haddock entrée he eventually ordered wasn’t haddock. He’s no fool, and instantly knew it was swai, or pangasius, the catfish species farmed predominantly in Vietnam. If it was swai, as he believed, it wasn’t worth that price tag, seeing how swai fillets wholesale for only a few bucks while haddock fillets in and around Boston can cost a restaurant USD 8 to USD 10 (or more) per pound, if it’s sourced from a reputable, local dealer. 

“Of the 4 million pounds of pangasius imported into the United States each week, can anybody here tell me where it goes? Because nobody calls it pangasius in a restaurant,” said Nussbaum.

So he called the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office to complain and report what he believed was a crime. Officially, it’s known as misbranding, defined simply by the FDA as a food item “offered for sale under the name of another food.” Unfortunately, he was told that they do not send officers out into the field for such matters — no funding for it. The AG office, he discovered, only offers consumer mediation where the restaurant operator would also state his or her case. Best-case scenario, Nussbaum gets his USD 19.99 back. I’m sure the time and effort that would take is worth more than 20 bucks to him. 

This type of enforcement effort, or lack thereof, is just not cutting it. FDA isn’t sending anyone to restaurants either. 

With all the scrutiny on fishermen and importers, it’d be tough to convince them that they’re the biggest part of the problem. Andrew Cohen, principal at ARC Consulting and a former special agent-in-charge at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said at the conference that the vast majority of the pangasius that enters the U.S. market arrives with accurate paperwork. (Coincidentally, Cohen’s story about busting up an Columbia River sturgeon caviar operation — in a motel — back when he was a fisheries law enforcement officer in Pacific Northwest, was astounding.) 

A lot can happen to seafood and its labels along the supply chain, but the risks and consequences of switching species in bulk for an importer versus those facing a restaurant operator are not comparable. One faces millions of dollars in fines and potential jail time while the other may or may not get bad press that’s quickly forgotten by the public. 

Are regulatory and enforcement agencies concerned only with crimes that involve millions of dollars and not the millions of daily crimes that involve a few bucks here and there? Is there really a difference? 

Nussbaum’s experience led him to come to one simple but sad conclusion: “If anybody’s looking to substitute swai for another species, the best place to experiment is in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” he said with deadpan delivery. 

The room burst out in laughter, as did I — it was a classic Morty zinger. But it’s really not funny. Nussbaum closed by saying he’s looking forward to next year’s inevitable discussion on fraud. The cheat goes on. 


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