Seafood fraud happens when, somewhere between the water and the plate, a piece of fish or shellfish gets mislabeled, swapped out or plumped up. It happens throughout the supply chain for many reasons, sometimes due to innocent omittances, other times as a result of more nefarious purposes.
Regardless of the root cause, seafood fraud means the product simply isn’t what it’s advertised to be.
Just how often seafood fraud occurs varies wildly based on the species being tested, the sample size and the location. Regardless of whether fraud touches 5 percent or 85 percent of our seafood inventory, it always directly hits our bottom line and it risks the trust that we have worked so hard to earn with our customers.
Here are five steps to take to help keep seafood fraud out of your operation.
1. Establish a strong relationship with your seafood provider
Structure your seafood ordering so that you are communicating directly with your salesperson. Leaving a voicemail or sending a late-night text is necessary sometimes, but it’s the personal connection you make when you speak to your purveyor that establishes an added sense of personal accountability. This accountability is your first line of defense against receiving seafood that is less than what you expect.
2. Trust but verify with the Better Seafood Board
The Better Seafood Board (BSB) is a watchdog group formed 12 years ago by the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), a non-profit industry organization dedicated to education regarding seafood safety, sustainability and nutrition. The BSB’s charge is to help stamp out fraud in the seafood industry. All members of NFI must sign a pledge to refuse to sell seafood that is short on weight or count as specified on the label, that has the wrong species name or country of origin on the label, or, that has been shipped through multiple countries to circumvent import tariffs and country of origin on the labeling. Check that your seafood supplier has pledged to adhere to these BSB guidelines at: aboutseafood.com/about/.
3. Know the species most commonly subject to fraud
The NOAA Fisheries Seafood Import Monitoring Program (SIMP) combats the threat of global illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing and seafood fraud. Its key objective is to eliminate the United States as a market for IUU-caught seafood. While fraud can happen with most species of seafood, this program tracks chain of custody data for the 13 imported species (see list above) most vulnerable to IUU fishing, and helps verify the seafood entering U.S. markets was legally harvested, and that it is the species it purports to be. Just two years old, the SIMP program is continuously gaining traction as an important deterrent to seafood fraud.
4. Expect to pay a fair price for good quality seafood
If you’ve consistently paid $9/lb. for sustainably caught Atlantic cod and the latest sell sheet has it listed for $5/lb., start asking questions to investigate the seafood’s provenance before you buy it. That said, if you find a different, less-loved flaky white fish species that’s comparable in a given dish—say, hake, dogfish or Pacific rockfish, for example—at that lower price point, that’s a different story. You might consider selling it as a replacement for the cod.
5. Don’t commit seafood fraud yourself
While you can tap into your seafood literacy skills to cook any species that comes across your cutting board, doing so without clearly and accurately naming the species is, in fact, seafood fraud. While you might describe Arctic char as “salmon lite” or get excited about the sexy appeal of menuing butterfish because it is a perfect descriptor for sablefish, all seafood must be labeled with its acceptable market name somewhere in your description of the dish. The FDA maintains a database of accepted market names for hundreds of species—search “seafood list” at fda.gov for a searchable listing.