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The weighting game
The seafood industry addresses short-weighting with
By James Wright
July 01, 2009
Thomas Billy, a former chief of the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration's Seafood Quality and Inspection
Division, once wrote a memo to Roy Martin, a former director of
science and technology at the National Fisheries Institute
(NFI). The letter detailed "grave concerns" Billy heard from
several U.S. crab companies regarding the practice of
intentionally mislabeling the net weight of frozen seafood
products. Many shipping cases, he discovered, illegally
included the weight of the ice glazing used to protect the
seafood from dehydration and freezer burn.
Billy learned the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was
aware of the unlawful practice, but lamented that the agency
had neither the manpower nor the funds to address it. He wrote,
"I feel very strongly that firms under our program should not
be placed at an economic disadvantage, and intend to pursue
this problem to a positive solution."
That letter was dated Dec. 13, 1977. More than three decades
later and despite Billy's best intentions, a solution is still
being sought to stamp out seafood fraud, a plague that creates
an uneven playing field for competitors, causes untold losses
for seafood buyers and ultimately cheats consumers. The FDA is
charged with enforcing the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which
prohibits adulteration of seafood species names, actual weights
and country of origin in an effort to inflate prices or
circumvent import tariffs. Yet the agency still claims that due
to a lack of resources, economic integrity violations yield to
food-safety and national security concerns.
A frustrated NFI says the paucity of accurate-labeling
enforcement doesn't discourage cheating.
"Cheaters cheat either because they are ignorant of the
rules or they know they can get away with it," Lisa Weddig,
director of regulatory and technical affairs at NFI, testified
before the FDA's Science Board in February. Weddig is also
secretary of the Better Seafood Board, an organization separate
from NFI but created in 2007 by its members as a mechanism to
report suppliers suspected of fraud. "The very nature of FDA
practices - even those that aren't public
health related - will hinder more serious violations," Weddig
Either the FDA or the National Marine Fisheries Service
would catch short-weighting crimes at ports of entry, but NMFS
only provides fee-for-service inspections. While the BSB is
drawing attention to fraud, industry veterans say more must be
done at the federal level. Roughly half of NFI's 300 member
companies are part of the seafood supply chain and were
required in 2007 to sign a pledge to shun fraudulent practices
- species substitution, short weighting or transshipping, which
the BSB calls the three cornerstones of seafood fraud.
The challenge lay in the fringes: There are hundreds of
companies and individuals brokering deals both within the
United States and with foreign suppliers, many of which are
either unfamiliar with U.S. laws or, as sources say, are
requested by their U.S. customers to process seafood with
excess preservatives like sodium tripolyphosphate or ice
glazing to bump up the weight.
"It's like the sermon at church - the ones who really need
to hear the message aren't there," says Travis Larkin,
president of importer Seafood Exchange in Raleigh, N.C. "It's a
solution in the middle of the supply chain, but the big
problems are at the front and the end."
The 'cheater pack'
Some acts of fraud are difficult, if not impossible, to
detect without expensive laboratory work or time dedicated to
inspecting overseas shipments. The short-weighting or "cheater
pack" con is simple: A 10-pound box of IQF shrimp or tilapia
fillets, for example, can have 2 pounds or more of ice glaze
coating the product for protection, though industry sources
confirm the standard is no more than 10 percent of the
product's weight. As that box changes hands, at any point in
the supply chain it may be resold as 12 pounds of product.
Now consider that box as part of a 20,000-pound order.
"It's like an old Norman Rockwell [painting] of the
housewife and the butcher, each of them pushing on the scale.
It's cheating on the weight and it shouldn't be tolerated,"
says Merle Knapp, VP of sales and marketing at Glacier Fish Co.
in Seattle, an at-sea processor and marketer of Alaska pollock,
a commonly adulterated species.
"It's always an issue, because
it reduces the perceived
of competing products, adds Knapp. "If it's 10 percent
less than ours, that immediately makes
Temptation to cheat, it seems, lurks at every turn. U.S.
seafood firms receive mass e-mail offers daily from overseas
for short-weight product -
offers they've sent to
the Better Seafood Board.
"They're not exactly hiding it," says Bill Dresser,
president of Sea Port Products in Kirkland, Wash., which
imports a wide range of seafood products.
Price-conscious buyers are lured in, either unknowing or
unconcerned about weight discrepancies - losses that can be
passed to the next link in the supply chain.
"There are guys out there just fishing, no pun intended,"
adds Larkin. "I do the math in my mind, and [the price] they're
offering is mathematically impossible for a valid pack."
The BSB fields complaints from both NFI members and
nonmembers but lacks authority to punish short-weight
offenders; Knapp refers to the BSB as the "neighborhood watch."
The BSB has sent cease-and-desist letters to a handful of
companies, says Weddig, with responses both remorseful and
recalcitrant (if one is received at all).
One company has had numerous complaints lodged against it
for offering short-weight seafood. Over the past several
months, the BSB shared with SeaFood Business e-mails sent to
U.S. companies from Maxport International in Beijing offering
an array of frozen seafood as low as 70 percent net weight
right next to products listed at 100 percent net weight. One
source called the company the "short-weight kings."
Weddig says the BSB notified Maxport several times and
received five responses, the last one in December 2008. "They
said, 'We didn't know, we'll stop.' They continued," says
Weddig. "They know what they're doing. They just changed how
offers were stated."
A source from Maxport named Daven told SeaFood Business via
e-mail that his company "never sold short-weight products to
USA." Daven had promised the BSB that Maxport would discontinue
short-weight offers to U.S. buyers or that the e-mails were
intended for European buyers. The FDA has not issued any import
alerts against Maxport International, according to OASIS, the
agency's online reporting system.
Dresser says e-mails offering short-weight seafood dwindled
after Sea Port Products notified all of its suppliers that
short weights wouldn't be tolerated.
"Two years ago, it was absolutely rampant," says Dresser,
referring to offers for everything from squid tubes to slipper
lobsters. "It was so pervasive that
if you weren't going to be
involved in short weights, you weren't getting in - the market
Dresser credits the BSB for helping his business and
"impacting the behavior" of non-NFI member companies. "And it's
not just short weights with us," he adds. "We told our
suppliers that should you do short weights with anybody else
and we find out about it, we'll stop buying from you."
End users lose out
Some buyers are quite aware of short weights and are holding
suppliers accountable. SeaFood Business obtained a letter sent
to an East Coast supplier in May by Tawa Supermarkets of Buena
Park, Calif., which operates a 22-unit Asian retail food chain
under the 99 Ranch Market brand. The letter insisted all the
company's suppliers comply with federal law demanding true net
weight declarations. In February, the FDA reissued its 1991
Guidance to Industry memo on short weighting - and the
corresponding felony charges - at the urging of the BSB.
Sysco, the largest U.S. foodservice distributor, truncated
its seafood supplier Rolodex for tighter control. Butch
Vidrine, Sysco's director of seafood sourcing, said during the
International Boston Seafood Show in March that the company cut
its black tiger shrimp suppliers from 159 to three, its Pacific
white shrimp suppliers from 300 to seven, its mahimahi
suppliers from 60 to three and its scallop suppliers from 25 to
Last fall the broadline distributor was fined $200,000 by
the Florida Attorney General's Office for supplying fish
mislabeled as grouper to restaurants in the Tampa, Fla., area.
Sysco, which regularly tests product for species
identification, admitted no intentional wrongdoing. But it was
a familiar tale: Undercover media stings in recent years have
caught numerous restaurants in both the United States and
Canada offering mislabeled seafood species, though most of them
say their suppliers duped them.
"The caliber of restaurant is irrelevant," says Morton
Nussbaum, chairman and CEO of International Marketing
Specialists of West Newton, Mass., which markets
DelicaSea-branded seafood. Companies that develop brands are
less likely to risk impugning themselves with fraudulent
schemes, he says.
Still, Nussbaum has witnessed raw tilapia served at sushi
restaurants as red snapper sashimi, counterfeit labels placed
atop originals and shrimp counts changed because larger sizes
command up to $1 more per pound. Suppliers, he adds, are often
"aiders and abettors."
Weddig says preventing economic fraud takes frequent spot
checks, even from trusted partners. "Canada is cracking down on
fraud, so there's a chance that more short-weighted product
could be coming into the United States," she says. "Our borders
are open, apparently."
Get it together
Patrick McGuinness, president of the Fisheries Council of
Canada, says Canada's Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) randomly
inspects 5 percent of seafood imports - the United States
reportedly inspects less than 2 percent - for food-safety
matters and net weight declarations. From April 1 to June 30,
the agency "doubled its efforts" on four species - shrimp,
basa, squid and Alaska pollock - by subjecting imports to
intensive checks because of repeated short-weight
"Some importers have integrity and commitment to their
customers, and bottom line, they were losing sales," he adds.
"Strong voices were saying that if somebody gets caught they
should face significant fines and their product destroyed -
direct, punitive action."
McGuinness says the CFIA, "pound for pound," has more
resources than the FDA. What's more, he adds, Canada's health
and food inspection agencies are separate entities.
"When you have an agency with dual mandates, and one is
superior, the second will always be second," McGuinness
Criticism of federal fraud prevention is now on the books.
The FDA, NMFS and U.S. Customs and Border Protection "do not
effectively collaborate" and haven't "identified a common goal,
established joint strategies or agreed on responsibilities,"
said a March report from the Government Accountability Office
on the agencies' performance in preventing seafood fraud. The
agencies have different species-identification methodologies
and don't share their respective laboratories' data, among
other gaps, the GAO noted.
Soon after the report's release, the BSB assembled relevant
government regulatory agencies to discuss short weighting and
unify their response to it. Officials from FDA, NMFS, CBP, the
U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Conference on
Weights and Measures attended.
"There is always room for improvements in the ways these
agencies interact," says Sebastian Cianci, an FDA spokesperson.
"Seafood inspection is just one small part of the
seafood-safety program, and given the motivation for committing
economic fraud it may be that in addition to increases in
inspection capacity, other regulatory tools are needed."
To its credit, the embattled FDA has publicly denounced
creative market names like "white roughy" and "bluenose
grouper" for inexpensive whitefish species like Vietnamese basa
(see sidebar, p. 19). And in terms of food-safety protection,
the FDA scores high marks with rejected-shipment notifications
on OASIS, says Nussbaum.
"When something is rejected on a Friday, it's there for all
to see by Monday," Nussbaum says. "They maintain files of
suspect shippers, importers. You'd have to be insane to try
But an executive with a West Coast seafood processor, who
spoke on the condition of anonymity, says getting the FDA to
carry out all its mandates - like policing seafood fraud - will
take more than just throwing money at it.
"It's going to take a complete overhaul," the source says,
adding that FDA officials have informed him that if homeland
security or food safety isn't the chief concern, there is no
budget for it - a similar response to what Cianci provided. "If
there's not enough strength to carry out labeling laws, then
why have them?"
That's a question that's been asked for more than 30
Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at