GAO study: Fraudulent fish easily slip into the food stream

Seafood fraud is a big problem.

And one of the reasons fraud can occur at any point in the seafood supply chain is that the federal agencies that oversee seafood don't work together, says a newly released report from the Government Accountability Office.

Sometimes excessive amounts of water, ice or breading are added to increase weight, sometimes seafood is shipped through an intermediate country to avoid customs duties, and sometimes packages are labeled as containing more seafood than they actually do, called short-weighting, the GAO report says. It was released this month.

The Food and Drug Administration is hearing about species substitution — selling cheap fish, often in fillet form, as more expensive species — "with increasing frequency," says spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek.

"It's an industry-wide issue," says Gavin Gibbons of the industry's National Fisheries Institute.

The report notes that seafood companies routinely receive written solicitations to buy fraudulent products. But the report says that when the National Fisheries Institute forwarded several solicitations to the FDA last year, the agency took no action.

Consumers who called the FDA after buying mislabeled seafood also got nowhere. One consumer complained about frozen shrimp labeled as a product of Mexico that had a second label underneath indicating it was a product of Thailand.

Though the FDA wouldn't comment directly on the report, Kwisnek did say that "resource constraints have forced the FDA to prioritize food safety issues above issues of economic fraud."

Two others federal agencies also oversee seafood. The Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection agency focuses on detecting schemes by seafood importers to avoid paying duty.

The National Marine Fisheries Service of the Department of Commerce maintains a fee-for-service program, paid for by retailers, which inspects one-third of the seafood consumed in the USA.

The report recommends that the FDA include species fraud in its safety rules and increase interagency collaboration. For example, the FDA, Customs and Border Protection and the National Marine Fisheries Service are each building separate DNA libraries to determine the species of seafood samples rather than sharing the DNA sequences.

It's not just economic integrity that's at stake, Gibbons says. "There's the 'broken window' theory: the idea that if a company is involved in economic fraud, what else are they doing?"