Catfish-smuggling ring busted in New York City

Four employees of Maspeth, New York, U.S.A.-based Asia Foods Distributor Inc. have been charged with running a smuggling operation that brought catfish into the United States illegally.

Mahmud Chowdhury, Shakil Ahmed, Belayet Hussain, and Firoz Ahammad were charged with catfish smuggling and conspiracy by the Office of the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York following a joint investigation by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Investigations Department (HSI), NOAA Fisheries’ Office of Law Enforcement, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Inspector General, according to a press release.

“Something smelled fishy, and this investigation led to this transnational criminal organization as the center of an alleged smuggling operation moving multiple shipments of catfish from prohibited countries into our ports to further a very lucrative scheme,” HSI Special Agent-in-Charge Peter C. Fitzhugh said. “It is a major concern when food entering the U.S. does not meet our strict health and safety guidelines, and HSI New York, working with CBP and our law enforcement partners, will continue to protect the public from potentially contaminated, diseased, or adulterated food products and bring to justice those who choose to line their pockets at the expense of our food supply chain.”

The four defendants were arrested on Friday, 19 February and have made an initial appearance before Judge Katharaine H. Parker, of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Each faces up to 25 years in prison.

The scheme allegedly involved bringing mislabeled siluriformes fish in from Myanmar and Bangladesh between January 2018 through October 2019, listing other species of fish in the shipping documents and in commercial invoices, according to the charging documents. A customs inspection performed in 2019 led to the discovery of the scheme, and an investigation of Asia Food Distributor’s warehouse and through site inspections conducted in the stores of the company’s customers, and shipping containers coming into the U.S. revealed additional amounts of illegally imported catfish.  Investigators also found evidence documenting explicit instructions from AFD to foreign exporters “about how to avoid the detection of their scheme and the accompanying risk of potential arrest and imprisonment,” according to the joint release.

John Petrizzo, the chairman of NFI’s Better Seafood Board and director of operations for Harbor Seafood, applauded the arrests.

“This is a great example of agencies focusing enforcement efforts on fish fraud and having an impact. Here we see the United States Attorney, Department of Homeland Security, NOAA’s Office of Law Enforcement and USDA’s Inspector General all working together to investigate and prosecute these suspects. Dedicating those kinds of resources to a fish fraud case sends a loud and clear message,” Petrizzo said. “We don’t need new laws or more regulations, we need enforcement and that’s what we are seeing today from these federal agencies. Hats off to them and their efforts to stamp out fish fraud.”

Siluriformes, which actually is comprised of several different species including pangasius and basa, has faced higher barriers to entry into the U.S. as a result of regulatory changes passed in 2017 and championed by the U.S domestic catfish industry.

“This case demonstrates the importance of our cooperation with U.S. government partners to interdict illegal products before they enter the country,” NOAA-OLE Northeast Division Assistant Director Timothy Donovan said. “OLE continues to work to protect consumers and fishermen from seafood fraud and the illegal importation of seafood through initiatives like our Seafood Import Monitoring Program.”

Photo courtesy of EQRoy/Shutterstock


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