The science of sustainable seafood, explained

Latest Oceana seafood fraud report takes aim at SIMP, but misses mark

This month, Oceana added another report to its seafood fraud campaign. Since I last covered this topic, not much has changed – similar vague methodologies, similar focus on species that have high incidences of fraud rather than high incidences of consumption, and similar misleading headlines from national media like this one from National Geographic.

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This post is a follow up to my previous post that comprehensively examined and critiqued Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign. Read that here.

Seafood Import Monitoring Program

The intention of Oceana’s most recent report was to call for an expansion of the Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP). SIMP is an electronic traceability program designed to reduce fraud in the import of seafood into the United States. The program was created under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018 and is managed by U.S. Customs and NOAA. Currently, SIMP requires importers to maintain records for shrimp, abalone, Atlantic cod, blue crab, dolphinfish, grouper, king crab, Pacific cod, red snapper, sea cucumber, sharks, swordfish, and tunas, detailing how they were caught or harvested and tracking the products until they reach the U.S. The program however does not extend past the importation stage – once it is in the domestic supply chain, the traceability systems end. Oceana is using their latest report as advocacy for including all seafood species (not just the ones listed above) and to extend traceability further into the supply chain past the point of importation.

Oceana sought to expose the limitations of this program by, “launching a nationwide investigation of some popular seafood types not covered by the program.” “Oceana employees and volunteers collected more than 400 samples from over 250 locations in 24 states and the District of Columbia, including restaurants, large grocery stores and smaller markets.”

Same critique of Oceana’s approach to seafood fraud

There were 29 different seafood “types” collected, but no criteria for how they chose these “types” other than they were not found in the SIMP program. Oceana used DNA testing to match the results with the label as per FDA guidelines. If something was labeled as simply “seabass”, but was more specifically Patagonian tooth, that label was considered incorrect and fraudulent. The same can be said for a label that read “snapper” but was not specific to explain which exact species. This is a critical decision by Oceana because it raises the incidence of seafood mislabeling found in restaurants where menu descriptions are often more general than in retail settings. Indeed, samples obtained in this study from restaurants were mislabeled 26% of the time compared to retail 16% of the time. As for seabass and snapper, they saw rates of mislabeling at 55% and 42%, respectively.

Oceana also attempted to exaggerate its results around catfish. Swai (Pangasius bocourti), a species of catfish, and channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus) are two major seafood imports to the US, typically from East Asia. Some of these imported catfish species have been associated with low sustainability ratings and health concerns; there is no doubt that this is a tricky labeling situation for the FDA to monitor. But there is already a strict labeling law that requires all imported catfish species – even true channel catfish – to be labeled differently. “Catfish” can now only be on labels of US caught or farm raised catfish products, even if it is the exact same species, as is the case with channel catfish imports. This law was enacted as an economic buffer a few years ago to protect the US catfish aquaculture industry. To this end, Oceana found only 7% of catfish labels to be incorrect. To me, that is a pretty low rate for one of the most consumed seafoods in the country, but Oceana framed this result much differently.

Catfish was the only species in Oceana’s study to be in the top ten most consumed seafoods in the US. I understand they aimed at species not covered by SIMP, but SIMP only covers 5 of the top ten, according to the National Fisheries Institute. That left salmon, tilapia, catfish, pollock and clams free to investigate in this study. Yet for some reason, Oceana only investigated catfish. They did however see it worthwhile to report on the labelling accuracy of hogfish, a minuscule fishery that lands less than 15 tons per year. Yet hogfish appeared at the top of the seafood swaps figure in this bullet point version of Oceana’s study, a study claiming to focus on “popular seafood types”.

As I emphasized in our previous post on Oceana’s seafood fraud campaign, I am not hoping to minimize the problem of seafood mislabeling. The SIMP program was a great first step towards better labeling practices, but there is more work to do. This is an important campaign to continue and I hope Oceana’s considerable fundraising capabilities will help this process along.

However, while this new report does at least shift blame away from restaurants and retailers to some extent and onto the federal government, it continues to use scare tactics and unrepresentative statistics. Anything that pushes US consumers away from seafood consumption is a mistake. The SIMP program was created for economic reasons, to bolster our domestic seafood economy against an overwhelming volume of seafood imports. If we frighten consumers away from seafood entirely, it will hurt our domestic seafood industry to the point that future policies like SIMP will be less important in the eyes of law makers.

Finally, I beg Oceana to please distinguish between “seafood mislabeling” and “seafood fraud”. Not all cases of mislabeling intend to deceive. The global seafood economy is incredibly complex and beyond the scope of any restaurant or grocery store owner to comprehend with 100% certainty, especially those operating their business when English is not their first language. Let’s empower consumers to make smarter seafood purchases rather than scaring them away from the seafood counter altogether.

Picture of Jack Cheney

Jack Cheney

Jack has sourced, sold, cooked, and sustainably certified seafood over the past 10 years. In addition to his contributions to Sustainable Fisheries UW, he is working to increase traceability into supply chains and educate consumers, chefs and retailers on the value of environmentally sustainable seafood. He earned a Master's in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 2015.

Check out some of our other coverage on Oceana, seafood fraud, and mislabeling:

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