Weighty issue: Mislabeling of frozen fish, seafood rarely punished

Weighty issue: Mislabeling of frozen fish, seafood rarely punished

Mislabeling common, but enforcement lacking, leaving mostly self-policing

By Julie Wernau and Alejandra Cancino
Chicago Tribune
April 25, 2010

At Super H Mart in Naperville, Nancy Jih piled a dozen packages of fresh salmon into her shopping cart that she planned to cut, wrap in individual baggies and freeze. That way, she said, she knows exactly what she is getting.

She has followed this practice since last fall, when frozen pollock fillets she purchased at another store seemed to weigh less than what the label indicated. Even her husband noticed. “How come you cooked so little?” she recalled him saying. Jih, who lives in Willowbrook, said she suspected she had been charged for the ice with her fish.

“How many people had the same thing happen as I did?”

Jih’s experience apparently is widespread. Voluntary inspections of seafood distributors by an arm of the federal Commerce Department find nearly a third of seafood they check is mislabeled, usually because of ice being included in the weight of the fish, but more recently because of the added weight of frozen or watery marinade preservatives. Sometimes even the fish are misidentified.

The Food and Drug Administration sent letters to two Illinois companies in October and February, threatening action over labeling issues. According to the letters, ocean perch was labeled snapper and the weight of frozen shrimp was bulked up with ice at an Addison distributor. In Bridgeview, a company that repackages seafood for home-delivery companies was distributing shrimp coated with water, citric acid and salt that made up 20 percent of the weight of the bag, according to the FDA letter.

The FDA, which inspects only 2 percent of the seafood coming into the United States, last year was criticized in a Government Accountability Office report for its failure to enforce laws against fraud, such as mislabeling. The report said the FDA has rarely, if ever, taken legal action against companies in the past decade, although it does issue warning letters. As a result, the seafood industry largely relies on self-policing.

Mislabeling is rampant, complained Jeff Goldberg, director of shrimp procurement at Mazzetta Co., based in Highland Park. “It’s a frustrating problem that companies like ours deal with day in and day out,” Goldberg said.

A New York company, Goldberg said, recently advertised pollock fillets at 80 percent, 90 percent and 100 percent net weight. The significance, he said, is that some distributors buy the 80 percent net weight fish and repackage and sell it as 100 percent, making a tidy profit. Other companies short-weight packages by a few ounces, which translates into a few cents per pound, and make lots of money in the distribution of millions of pounds of fish, he said.

“We don’t want people to get turned off on seafood,” Goldberg said. “We believe that people should get what they paid for.”

A recent Illinois investigation, part of a broader weights and measurements probe, showed distributors got about a pound more of fillets than they had paid for from Mazzetta. Jordan Mazzetta, the company’s executive vice president, said its general rule is to package more fish than what the label says. “It’s never 32 ounces, it’s always over,” said Mazzetta, who favors heavy fines against companies that cheat.

Some distributors, however, contend that the issue with iced fish is more complex than it appears, and that the FDA should focus on seafood as it arrives at U.S. ports rather than on distributors where seafood is repackaged.

More than 80 percent of the seafood consumed in the U.S. is from overseas, from countries such as Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia, and the fish is glazed with ice soon after it is caught to preserve it. Seafood can remain frozen for six to nine months before it reaches the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

“It’s not uncommon to see a fish caught in Alaska … flash frozen on either a ship or a frozen processor offshore, placed in a tramper vessel, uploaded, taken on to China, placed in cold storage, and that product may go on to be further processed by a Chinese firm or American firm in China, and there’s a chance that the product could go on to Europe or on to the United States,” said Timothy Hansen, the NOAA Seafood Inspection Program director.

Once in the U.S. the seafood is repackaged to meet the needs of supermarkets and other retailers and dealers. A single shipment of salmon, for instance, could be repackaged 10 ways, Hansen said.

Hansen said it would be impossible for distribution companies to test weights of seafood they receive because that would involve opening packages, spraying off the ice glazing and weighing the fish. That process would spoil the fish, he said. It is illegal for companies to charge for the ice.

To try to protect themselves against fraud, retailers and distribution companies hire NOAA to perform seafood inspections to verify that the weight and species marked on bags are accurate. They also prefer to do business with NOAA-certified suppliers. When the weight of a bulk product is found to be short, Hansen said, the buyer and supplier usually work out a deal to credit the buyer for the short weight and the buyer will package the seafood to legal standards.

The distributors’ names are on the bags, which means they’re legally responsible for mislabeling, said Lisa Weddig, director of regulatory and technical affairs for the National Fisheries Institute Inc., an industry organization.

The inspections are voluntary. NOAA takes random samples and inspects the products using methods prescribed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

NOAA, which inspects roughly 20 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S., has no enforcement authority other than to remove its certification from suppliers found in violation of the law. It recently agreed to share its findings with the FDA after a 2009 report by the GAO found that the FDA between 2003 and 2008 physically inspected just 2 percent of imported seafood. Only 0.05 percent of those inspections were for fraud.

The report called for improving coordination and cooperation among the federal agencies whose responsibilities touch on seafood fraud – the FDA, NOAA and the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection. The goal, the report said, is to stop mislabeled seafood from entering the marketplace.

The agencies generally supported the report’s recommendations, and the FDA and NOAA agreed last October to try to avoid overlapping efforts.

“We only see beginning steps, but we do give agencies up to four years to implement the recommendations,” said Lisa Shames, the GAO’s director for food safety and agriculture issues.

Meanwhile, a recent investigation by weights and measures officials in 17 states, including Illinois, brought the mislabeling issue to the fore after prompting by the National Fisheries Institute. The group urged the probe because some members complained that they couldn’t compete by being honest.

The probe found that consumers were overpaying for seafood that included the weight of ice as part of the labeled weight of seafood – up to 40 percent of the weight of a bag. Four Illinois firms were found in violation of the law, many with multiple violations, and in some cases for underweight seafood they had shipped to other states.

The weights and measures officials have sent their investigative documents to the FDA, which in March said it was conducting a review to see whether further action is necessary.

In addition, the FDA’s database revealed that the agency had sent warning letters to a couple of local distributors.

At Gourmet Express Marketing Inc., in Addison, warned by the FDA for mislabeled species of fish and shortweighting shrimp, a woman who answered the phone claimed the FDA letter needed interpretation. However, repeated attempts to reach the company president were unsuccessful.

At Registry Steaks & Seafood Ltd., a repackaging company in Bridgeview, Anthony Migacz said he made every attempt not to violate the law and still received a warning letter on Oct. 8, 2009, for mislabeling shrimp products by increasing their bulk or weight with a frozen “marinade” glaze containing water, citric acid and salt, among other violations. The investigation has since been closed, but Migacz said he felt his company was not in violation of FDA rules.

Migacz said he bought 2-pound bags of marinated shrimp, which contained 1.6 pounds of shrimp and 0.4 pounds of the water, citric acid and salt mix. His company then opened the bags and repackaged them with a label that disclosed that the 20 percent marinade solution was included in the weight of the shrimp. Migacz said he wanted to make sure he was in compliance with FDA weight regulations so he showed the labels to FDA officials and got them approved.

“I have e-mails from the compliance office saying that’s OK, so I thought I was doing everything correctly,” Migacz said. However, in April 2009, he was inspected and told that he was violating the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.

Migacz said he is aware that adding the ice glaze to the weight of the seafood is illegal, but there are no regulations for marinated seafood. “The marinade is completely different because it has ingredients and it’s declared right on the label,” he said.

The bottom line, said FDA spokeswoman Rita Chappelle, is that consumers are paying for 2 pounds of shrimp when they are getting only 1.6 pounds. “We regulate the honest portrayal of the product that the consumer is getting,” Chappelle said.

After receiving the warning, Migacz returned the marinated shrimp to the supplier and he said he would no longer order it.

“It’s to the detriment of my company,” Migacz said, “because my competitors around the country are still buying it and selling it.”