Wicker, Markey Ask Obama to Fight Seafood Fraud

Senators Call for Better Agency Coordination, Border Inspections to Protect Fishermen, Consumers

January 22, 2014

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., today asked President Barack Obama to direct federal agencies to better coordinate their efforts to fight seafood fraud that threatens the livelihoods of American fishermen and harms consumers. Seafood fraud is a serious problem in the United States, with surveys showing that some common fish are mislabeled nearly all of the time. Although the United States imports more than 90 percent of seafood consumed domestically, foreign seafood is almost never inspected for fraud or legality, and the multiple agencies tasked with fighting fraud are not coordinating their efforts.

“The urgent need to fight seafood fraud and establish a standard of traceability can be met only through coordinated interagency action, and it is time for the agencies to come together to find solutions,” wrote the Senators. “In order to help address the problem of seafood fraud, we ask that you promulgate an interagency rulemaking that improves agency coordination and communication, strengthens border inspections to detect mislabeled seafood, establishes a standard for national traceability of seafood products, and ensures that consumers have access to information about where their seafood comes from. These immediate, concrete actions will help reduce the incidence of fraud in the U.S. seafood supply and will restore consumer confidence that their seafood is safe, legally caught, and honestly labeled.”

Seafood fraud can be used to pass off less expensive seafood for more expensive seafood, or even to launder an illegally caught fish into the legal supply chain. A recent nationwide study of seafood mislabeling by the nonprofit group Oceana found that one-third of the samples of commonly swapped and regionally significant species they tested were mislabeled. Rates of mislabeling for certain popular species, such as red snapper and white tuna, were as high as 94 percent and 84 percent, respectively.

In the letter, the Senators note that the “government’s attempts to address this problem have been woefully inadequate.” The Senators cite a 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study that highlighted the problems between the three agencies with primary jurisdiction to address seafood fraud, including gaps in communication, duplicative inspections, and more. The GAO found that these agencies – the Food and Drug Administration, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Customs and Border Protection – could and should do more to address seafood fraud.  The GAO study says that the FDA inspects less than two percent of seafood imports at the U.S. border and virtually none of that is inspected specifically for fraud or legality. The report also found instances where FDA officials inspected a seafood facility not knowing that NOAA officials had already inspected the same facility.

In 2012, then-Rep. Markey introduced his “SAFE Seafood Act” to crack down on foreign fish fraudsters, increase inspection regimes, and provide agencies with the resources to enforce laws that would protect American fishermen from fraud. Senator Wicker is a cosponsor of the “SAFE Seafood Act.”

“Our constituents include seafood consumers, fishermen, and seafood businesses, and we all have an interest in protecting our oceans in order to ensure a sustainable seafood supply for generations to come,” the Senators concluded.