Mass. gets serious about seafood fraud

Editor’s note: On Wednesday, SeaFood Business Senior Editor James Wright attended a public hearing on seafood fraud held by the Massachusetts Legislature’s Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure. 

The Massachusetts legislature on Wednesday for the first time was tasked with addressing the issue of mislabeled seafood products sold in the state. The state is considering using DNA technology as part of its oversight to assure that seafood being sold in retail outlets and restaurants is what is being advertised.

A public hearing was held at the State House in Boston, just a few months after the city’s largest newspaper, the Boston Globe, published a two-part, front-page exposé on seafood fraud in which a number restaurants were found through DNA testing to have substituted less expensive fish species for more expensive ones.

“[The story] touched a nerve,” said state Sen. Thomas P. Kennedy, co-chair of the state’s Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure, which heard from food and health agency officials as well as members of the seafood community.

Committee co-chairman Rep. Theodore Speliotis (D-Danvers) emphasized that Massachusetts officials “put public health first and foremost.” The hearing was designed to better understand “remedial actions” being taken by state agencies and the industry to restore consumer confidence in accurately labeled seafood. 

“There are licensing requirements on the books and have been for decades,” said Speliotis. “We’re here today to see if that’s enough” and if “lax oversight has caused financial hardship on our consumers and placed in jeopardy anyone’s risk to allergies or illnesses.”

Roger Berkowitz, CEO of Boston-based restaurant chain Legal Sea Foods, was the first to offer testimony. Berkowitz said mislabeling on the part of a few “casts a pall over the industry, and we all suffer a black eye.”

“The problem is easily fixable,” explained Berkowitz. “A public-private partnership is the quickest and most effective way to eliminate fraud.” Berkowitz said Legal Sea Foods would work with state public health officials on a pilot program involving the entire supply chain — wholesalers, retailers and restaurants — that would include outreach efforts to educate all stakeholders about mislabeling.

The Boston Globe cited many Boston-area restaurants back in October for serving customers fish that they did not order. The newspaper hired a lab in Canada to conduct DNA tests on fish that reporters purchased; 48 percent, or 87 of the 183 samples, were sold with the wrong species name. Although its offense was relatively minor — a sample of cod turned out to be haddock, two similar fish with similar price tags — Legal Sea Foods was one of those restaurants.

Officials from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, the Department of Fish and Game and the Department of Public Health also testified, as did political representatives from throughout the state and non-governmental organizations like Oceana. Charles Carroll, director of the state’s Division of Standards at the Massachusetts Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, said multiple state agencies are discussing the use of “fish genetics testing with faculty and staff at UMass Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science and Technology.”

“Consumers in Massachusetts should not be worried about eating seafood,” said Rep. James Cantwell (D-Scituate), adding that Massachusetts fishermen land approximately USD 500 million worth of seafood products annually. Cantwell urged the importance of protecting their livelihoods by ensuring all seafood products sold within the state are properly labeled. “Establishing state standards for seafood labeling — whether or not the feds are doing this — we can act as a model,” he added.  

Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) in McLean, Va., said that because seafood has a long supply chain and because of its complexity, it is often difficult to identify who is responsible for mislabeling.

“Our hope is that public forums like this one will make it harder for those who are breaking the law to operate,” said Gibbons, who added that NFI is partnering with the Massachusetts Restaurant Association (MRA) and the National Restaurant Association to spread awareness of labeling laws among end users.

Peter Christie, president and CEO of the MRA, said before the Globe story ran he was not aware of a “big problem” with seafood and species substitution at the restaurant level. He then began to research and came upon on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s list of acceptable fish names, which lists hundreds of species, many of which have multiple names — acceptable names by FDA standards and vernacular names that are not.

“The bottom line is that unless you’re involved in seafood as a profession, it honestly is all very confusing,” he said.

Finally, Will Gergits, CEO of DNA-testing laboratory Therion International in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said in the eight years that he has been identifying seafood species using DNA technology, it’s the first time he’s seen any government committee, state or federal, address seafood fraud in this manner. He applauded the committee for taking on the issue.  

“It’s not a local problem,” said Gergits, “it’s a national problem. It’s an international problem. The vast majority of mislabeling that we have seen has not come from confusion.”

Interested in learning more about DNA testing of seafood? Click here to access an October SeafoodSource webinar on DNA testing, featuring Gergits, Edward Diehl of ACGT Inc. and LeeAnn Applewhite of Applied Food Technologies. You must be a SeafoodSource premium member to download the 90-minute webinar. 


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