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One Man's Opinion: It's hard to pull off fraud with smart buyers

Peter Redmayne
Peter Redmayne
April 01, 2005

Early in March, WKRG, the local television station for the Gulf of Mexico “Gold Coast,” aired a two-part investigative piece entitled “Substitute Snapper?” Intrepid reporter Tiffany Craig visited five restaurants and three seafood markets in Alabama and Florida. She bought red snapper fillets, froze them and shipped them off for DNA testing.

When the lab reported that three of the eight samples were not red snapper, Tiffany was shocked.

She hopped in her car and sped over to Pascagoula, Miss., where she interviewed Spencer Garrett, the veteran head of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s National Seafood Inspection Laboratory. He explained to Tiffany that “it’s not surprising — species substitution does occur in the seafood industry.” He went on to add that mislabeling is a “rip-off” and violates the federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

Now, Tiffany’s red snapper revelation is not exactly breaking news. Every year, some TV station, usually in the Southeast, reports (normally during a sweeps week) that some fishmonger or restaurateur is ripping customers off by selling them something other than the real deal when it comes to red snapper. Last year, a study by the University of North Carolina found 80 percent of the fish labeled red snapper was actually something else.

In the United States, only one species, Lutjanus campechanus, can be marketed simply as red snapper, and it’s a pretty pricey fish. So it’s tempting to buy Indonesian scarlet snapper fillets for $3 a pound less — especially if consumers are none the wiser. And if you want to make a bit more, try selling Pacific rockfish or tilapia as red snapper. Two of the places Tiffany busted were doing just that.

Red snapper substitution may be the oldest fish fraud there is. So why is it still so common?

Because no one can stop it. Clearly, the Food and Drug Administration can’t. The agency has shown it has minimal interest in enforcing economic fraud issues.

“Not enough manpower” is the agency’s common refrain.

Actually, I’m surprised there’s not more fish fraud going on. If the FDA doesn’t care, who does?

Smart buyers do. And that’s why it’s not as easy to play games as it used to be. One big club store chain booted out its shrimp supplier a year or so ago after it found the store was buying shrimp that had been soaked, instead of the “chem-free” product they thought they were buying.

A buyer at any large retail or restaurant chain will do regular quality control checks on all incoming product. In many cases, it’s part of the company’s HACCP (hazard analysis critical control points) program. Any QC person will quickly pick up obvious tricks like net weight and accurate grading — and the better ones will have a sharp eye to detect use of “processing aids” like tripolyphosphate or species substitutions. Once you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to spot the difference between a silverbrite and a silver salmon, or a warm- and coldwater lobster tail.

Buyers are simply too busy these days to fool around with people who are trying to rip them off. They may give you a second chance if you’ve got problems on the production side, but if they think you’re trying to fool them, you’re out the door. And that’s the way it should be. The industry should be smart enough to police itself.

And if consumers are getting ripped off, state and local officials should get more involved policing the people who misrepresent product. 

April 2012 - SeaFood Business 

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