Shrimp Slushees, Anyone?
At the National Fisheries Institute's New England Membership Meeting last week in Quincy, Mass., NFI President John Connelly fielded questions from the region's members. As I poked at my chicken Marsala, I realized one persistent issue, economic fraud, has no simple solution - especially if it's overlooked or allowed to continue.
The most egregious offense taken along the seafood supply chain is arguably species substitution, in which buyers get something they did not pay for. Nowhere has this form of fraud caused more damage than in Florida, where for a time it seemed dubious that any restaurant was actually serving grouper, the state's signature fish. But a box of inexpensive basa or catfish labeled as the pricey grouper is hardly the most common infraction.
That distinction belongs to short weights. A majority of processed shrimp, for example, is protected by a thin glaze of ice, usually not more than 10 percent net weight, before freezing. But if the glazing process is intentionally lengthened, 7 pounds of P&D shrimp can easily become a 10-pound box ready for distribution. The buyer essentially pays for 3 pounds of water that costs the same as the shrimp.
"Ten percent [glaze] is not amoral," a seafood importer told me a couple of days later. "That serves a purpose because it helps prevent dehydration and protects the product. Twenty percent glaze, no. Thirty percent glaze - why don't we start selling shrimp Slushees at that point?"
Connelly has said numerous times that he's seen e-mail proposals from suppliers offering product at up to 65 percent net weight. Whatever ratio the buyer wants, it can be done.
The problem is, some traders know they must buy that ice or lose business. They know they're getting screwed, and so do their customers. Retailers, accustomed to shrink in the seafood department, shrug their shoulders and bump up the price to cover the loss. And consumers, unaware of any wrongdoings, are just happy that a 1-pound bag of raw shrimp is still $6 a pound. One could argue that there are no losers in this scenario, since everyone got paid and dinner's on the table.
Except there are losers: the competitors committed to selling true weight. They're tired of competing, as they often do, on price alone when the competition's shrimp is $1 or more cheaper and three-quarters of it is water, or the scallops are "dry" when they're obviously not.
Many NFI members have signed a pledge to honor true weights and answer to the Better Seafood Bureau should any disputes arise. But until the playing field is truly leveled - until buyers push back and the federal government actually enforces laws that prohibit short weights and other acts of economic fraud - the ice age will continue.