Fishy Business: U.S. Agency Tries to Prevent Net Weight Fraud

                                                                             (Image credit: John Nordell/Getty Images)

The National Marine Fisheries Service wants to make sure that the pricey pound of scallops you buy is indeed a pound of scallops.

Although layering fish with ice - "overglazing," and plumping up scallops with a sodium-based solution - "soaking," are acceptable practices in the industry, intended to keep seafood fresh, the practice of adding vast amounts of water can misrepresent the net weight of the seafood.

The fisheries service is targeting this type of intentional mislabeling.

Steven Wilson, chief quality officer of the National Marine Fisheries Service seafood inspection program, said that mislabeling seafood - from species substitution to misrepresenting net weight - is fraud.

"It's gotten out of hand," he said. "Consumers are paying $10 to $20 on water,  depending on the product."

Recent studies have found that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time. Wilson's agency has announced that it will set voluntary quality standards for the industry to follow.

"The idea is to inform the consumer of what they're purchasing," Wilson said. "The agency will make sure labels are accurate."

Of the seafood products his agency has been asked to inspect, Wilson said, at least 40 percent suffered from some sort of "economic fraud." Eight in 10 of those cases dealt with a net weight problem.

"The idea of net weight issues, that's not new," he told ABC News today, "[but] it has increased dramatically over the last decade. … This is becoming more and more prevalent for consumers."

Wilson said that although the Food and Drug Administration regulated seafood, tight funds have meant that concerns about food safety took priority at times over issues like net weight.

He said that there were currently no industry standards in place stating how much water was acceptable to use when treating seafood. He also said that the majority of companies in the industry were in agreement on the need for rules.

Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood trade association, told The Associated Press that ensuring seafood labels have accurate food weights is "absolutely a challenge."

"This sounds like something that is so simple, and so sort of pedestrian in the world of fraud, you would think … people wouldn't get away with it," he said.

Margot Stiles, senior scientist at Oceana, an international nonprofit working to protect the world's oceans, said the net weight issue reflected a larger problem with seafood in the U.S. - a lack of government oversight over an industry in which 85 percent of the product is imported.

"I think the overall problem is that seafood is being neglected," she said. "The government is not paying attention. You're not getting what you pay for when you buy seafood."

Stiles said that although the National Marine Fisheries Service's plan to create standards was a step in the right direction, meeting the standards should be mandatory.

"You're never going to reach the bad guys with a voluntary program," Stiles said. "It's like asking people to turn themselves into the police station. I think voluntary isn't good enough."

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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