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Point of View: You’ve been warned

John Connelly, National Fisheries Institute - Photo courtesy of National Fisheries Institute
By John Connelly
February 05, 2012

You’re a shrewd businessman, no doubt. You drive a proverbially hard bargain. And you’re known to get the best price from your suppliers. That’s why the price per pound of the whitefish you’re buying is a full 75 cents lower than what your competitors are charged. Right?

Wrong. You’re complicit in fish fraud. You know the price is too good to be true, but you take it because margins are small and it’s not like you’re breaking the law. You’re not the one adding the extra glaze. You’re not the one labeling it wild. You’re not the one adding the water. It’s not your fault, so you’re not going to get in trouble. Right?

Wrong. Nestled in amongst the many meetings at this year’s World Seafood Congress in Washington, D.C., was a panel on economic integrity. Wayne Hettenbach, senior trial attorney from the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division, was on hand, and his comments on culpability may have been missed by some. But they bear repeating. When asked where the legal buck stops, he was clear that the Justice Department believes it stops with you. Hettenbach said when a buyer gets a price that he knows is “too good to be true,” he becomes a willing participant in fraud and is therefore part of the problem. The buyer becomes a willing participant in a transaction involving illegally imported goods. If prosecutors can prove you simply know the market value of the fish yet somehow are paying a lot less, they can and will target you along with the source.

As announced back in November, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has plans to ramp up its new DNA fish-testing program. In 2011, FDA pulled hundreds of seafood samples from importers, warehouses and distribution centers and this year inspectors plan to pull close to 1,000 more. Because the agency believes much of the species mislabeling is happening at the retail and foodservice level, it also has plans to collaborate with the state regulatory agencies as part of a crackdown that will test throughout the value chain. 

Fish fraud is between the crosshairs, and the seafood community is on notice that the “I didn’t know” defense simply won’t fly. Similar to being charged as an accomplice for knowing when the heist was going to happen, buying product that you know is below market value makes you culpable.  

A 2010 Congressional Research Service report asked if current laws governing fish fraud were “clear and enforceable” and whether federal agency enforcement efforts were “adequate.” The issue has finally reached the highest levels in Washington, spurring more awareness, testing and enforcement. 

Sir Isaac Newton discovered that an object in motion tends to stay in motion, and an object at rest tends to stay at rest. For a long time, bureaucratic inertia kept regulators from doing much of anything about fish fraud, but the ball is now rolling and picking up speed. Ask yourself which side you will be on when the once-absentee regulators show up at your door. And you’ve been warned: They won’t accept pleas of ignorance as a defense.

John Connelly is president of the National Fisheries Institute in MacLean, Va. 
February 2012 - SeaFood Business

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