Class action lawsuit filed against New York retailer in wake of seafood mislabeling report

Published on
January 7, 2019

Less than a month after the New York Attorney General’s office said it found “rampant” seafood mislabeling at New York supermarkets, one of the retailers involved faces a potential class action lawsuit.

In mid-December, the New York Attorney General’s office said it found that around a quarter of the seafood sampled at New York grocery retailers was mislabeled. While Oceana and universities have studied retail seafood mislabeling, the New York AG’s report is the first major U.S. government investigation of seafood fraud within supermarket chains.

The AG office found that a small subset of supermarket brands – Food Bazaar, Foodtown, Stew Leonard’s, Uncle Giuseppe’s, and Western Beef – were responsible for a “vastly disproportionate share of suspected mislabeling” in New York.

Now, Shelby Franklin, a New York consumer, is suing Norwalk, Connecticut-based Stew Leonard’s over its allegedly mislabeled wild sockeye salmon and red snapper. 

The class action complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleges that Stew Leonard’s “routinely took advantage of consumers’ preferences for certain fish species and characteristics by labeling and passing off low-demand, less healthy, and less environmentally-friendly fish as more desirable, healthier, and more sustainable varieties of fish.”

Stew Leonard’s, which operates six grocery stores, sold snapper fish as the more desirable and expensive red snapper, and coho salmon as the more desirable and expensive sockeye salmon, Franklin said in the complaint. 

“In making the false, misleading, and deceptive representations and omissions described herein, defendant knew and intended that consumers would pay a premium for products labeled as red snapper and sockeye salmon over other, less desirable, fish products,” she said.

Franklin and the class members purchased more of and paid more for the salmon, red snapper, and other products than they would have “had they known the truth about the products,” the complaint stated. 

“Consequently, plaintiff and the class members have suffered injury in fact and lost money as a result of defendant’s wrongful conduct,” according to the lawsuit. 

While a spokesperson for Stew Leonard’s declined to comment on the lawsuit, Stew Leonard Jr., president and CEO of the chain, responded to the New York AG’s office report in mid-December.

“Two years ago, Stew Leonard’s started importing what we believed to be red snapper. It had a red hue and it was snapper. Until today, my family and I had no idea that an imported snapper couldn’t be called a ‘red snapper,’ as only domestic snapper is permitted to be called ‘red snapper,’” Leonard Jr. said in a statement. “We immediately changed our signage and our labels once we were alerted to this issue earlier today by the New York Attorney General’s Office. We have 25 different species of fish on our fish bars at Stew Leonard’s and this is the first time anything like this has ever happened.”

Attorneys for the Sultzer Law Group, which represents Franklin, did not respond to SeafoodSource’s requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the New York AG’s office said it may take enforcement action against retailers that mislabeled seafood. 

A significant 67 percent of red snapper samples were mislabeled, the AG office’s investigation found, while approximately 87.5 percent of lemon sole was mislabeled. In addition, 27.6 percent of species sold as “wild” salmon were mislabeled - often substituted for farmed salmon. 

Image courtesy of Stew Leonard’s

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