Broken Windows Theory
We often mention the broken windows theory when we encourage FDA to focus some resources on economic fraud violations. The willingness to cheat or not understand the economic regulations (e.g., net weights, species identification) could be a sign of more serious problems like the willingness to be equally as lax or ignorant of food safety rules. While there are studies linking fixing broken windows to crime prevention, we havent seen such research in the seafood fraud arena.
Could this warning letter issued by FDA be an example of the broken window theory food safety-style? Dont know, but thank you FDA for taking note of how misidentifying a fish species is a violation of the FD & C Act.
Can Science Fairs Help?
Early in my career as a food scientist I would volunteer to be a judge at the local science fair. I was always amazed at the advanced level of science being achieved by the high school students. I dont recall though any projects where students investigated species substitution in the marketplace, but DNA testing of seafood seems to have captured the interest of young scientists. Now that interest has moved to the DC area.
The DC NBC news affiliate ran a story this week reporting on the results of a school project utilizing DNA analysis to identify fish species. Three high school students sampled various fish from DC wholesale fish markets and compared the results from the Smithsonians Barcode of Life DNA analysis to the labels on the fish. Out of the 49 samples, the students found that 11 were mislabeled. The students found Atlantic salmon being sold as King salmon, perch being sold as arctic char, Atlantic halibut being sold as Pacific halibut to name a few.
Unfortunately its become a sure thing that these types of investigations will find misidentified species. Fraud or not, consumers are misled. Maybe FDA should sub-contract with our high schools to help crack-down on species substitution.
A Different View of Food Fraud
Its funny what pops-up when you ask Google to search for blogs on food fraud. Today this posting from WebMD come across my email – Food Frauds That Can Wreck Your Diet. This has nothing to do with seafood fraud but there is a good slide (slide 15) about foods with added omega-3s. The folks at WebMD support obtaining healthful omega-3s naturally by eating fish. The food fix to avoid this particularfood fraud is to eat 6-ounces of salmon because it has 100 times more omega-3 than in a serving of fortified yogurt. Lets just hope that what we buy is at 100% net weight so we can get the most omega-3s for our money. Last time I checked ice glaze provides 0 mg of omega-3s.
Science to Combat Fraud
News out of Canada this week looks to science to detect food fraud. Nicholas Low a professor at the University of Saskatchewan is developing a molecular internal tagging system to track food products as they move through the supply chain.
There have been plenty of instances of food fraud, not just seafood, so there is certainly the need for innovative methods to authenticate ingredients and food products. We look forward to the final outcome from this project.
Now if someone could develop a technique for determining the % glazing without destroying the product. Is anyone up to the challenge?
Gotcha Carolina Style
Investigative reporting on species substitution in restaurants always makes for an interesting story. Reporter visits several area restaurants, orders a fish dish (typically grouper, snapper or some type of sashimi) from each restaurant, sends samples to a lab for DNA testing (almost always includes some type of action shot of the reporter putting teeny samples of fish in test tubes), and surprise!, some sample results come back indicating a fish switch passing off a less valued fish for the one on the menu. Gotcha. The story will then end with a 60-minutes-style interview of the restaurant owner and/or an outraged consumer. Finger pointing may happen, but you know what the consumer doesnt care whos at fault.
People vs. Ralphs
Net weight violations made the news again this time it was Ralphs, a major grocery chain in California, being charged by the LA City Attorneys office for short weighting consumers. Not just ice-glazed seafood this time, but a range of products including deli-salads, fried chicken and coffee.
While some may be wondering if the nickel and dime approach (of course a potential fine of $256,000 is a lot of nickels and dimes!) of testing the net weight of individual packages in a grocery store is the best way to crack down on processors willing to pack product at 90, 80 or even 70% net weight, you have to admit these consumer facing stories tend to get the attention of media and the consumer.
Will charging retailers help in the quest to put a stop to net weight fraud? Only time will tell.
Word is Out (Part II)
Some more on the Word is Out. A month after the NCWM release of results of the investigation by states looking at the weight of frozen seafood products we still see some press pick-up. The Chicago Tribune ran a follow-up piece with more on how frozen fish is mislabeled if the weight of the ice glaze is included as part of the net weight of the product.
And I want to correct a statement that was made in the Chicago Tribune story. I had commented that fish portions that are individually vacuum packaged should not contain any ice glaze since the individual packaging serves to protect against freezer burn. While it is true that the packaging will protect against freezer burn, some ice-glazed products are vacuum packagedat a facility other then where the initial freezing takes place. There is nothing wrong with that provided the weight of the ice glaze isnt counted as part of the net weight.
The Many Faces of Food Fraud
We tend to have a limited view of fraud in the seafood industry:
- Intentionally packing short weight product by including the weight of the glaze as part of the net weight of the product
- Selling fish as a different species
- Transshipping product through another country to avoid paying duties or complying with FDA import alert
But look at these other examples of fraud that FDA has dealt with in the past week:
- Cheese importers arrested for selling contaminated cheese that was refused entry into the US (and avoiding re-exportation with decoy product).
- Theft from cargo and warehouses of FDA-regulated products such as medicines, vaccines, medical devices and infant formula.
- Consumer sentenced to jail time for making a false claim of glass in bottled water.
It’s amazing what people are willing to do.
Did you know that the FDA Food Code has a provision that says that species substitution is against the rules? Well apparently this is not very clearly stated in the Food Code because we frequently see instances of fish switch. (Like here, here, and here.) That is why the BSB requested that a simple sentence be added to the Food Code that would clarify that fish sold to the consumer needs to be identified by the proper market name or common scientific name as identified in FDAs Seafood List. The request was considered at the Conference for Food Protection meeting here in Providence, Rhode Island and it was determined that the issue of species substitution is already adequately addressed in the Food Code so no changes are needed. Confirmation that calling a fish any old name that sounds good violates the Food Code is good news.
Here is the actual language from the code:
(A) Food shall be offered for human consumption in a way that does not mislead or misinform the consumer.
So what does honestly presented really mean? The State of Florida does a good job of expanding what is in Food Code to some government language that is clear:
An operator may not knowingly and willfully misrepresent the identity of any food or food product to any of the patrons of such establishment. The identity of food or a food product is misrepresented if:
- The description of the food or food product is false or misleading in any particular;
- The food or food product is served, sold, or distributed under the name of another food or food product; or,
- The food or food product purports to be or is represented as a food or food product that does not conform to a definition of identify and standard of quality if such definition of identity and standard of quality has been established by custom and usage.
So here is what honestly presented means to the BSB.
- A fish called the name of another species is not honestly presented and violates the Food Code.
- Fish that was frozen, thawed out before presented for sale without indicating it has been previously frozen is not honestly presented and violates the Food Code.
- Frozen tuna steaks that have been treated with CO to preserve the color and labeled as being treated with filtered wood smoke are not honestly presented and violate the Food Code.
- Frozen tilapia that has been treated with CO to preserve the color and CO is not included in the ingredient statement is not honestly presented and violates the Food Code.
- Farm-raised atlantic salmon that is being passed off as wild-captured pacific salmon is not honestly presented and violates the Food Code.
- Shrimp that is imported from one country but identified as product of the US or of another country is not honestly presented and violates the Food Code.
- Crab flavored seafood, made with surimi, a fully cooked fish protein that is sold as crab is not honestly presented and violates the Food Code.
Did we miss any?
Direct Line to FDA
Unless you have a direct line to FDAs Division of Compliance Policy it is often difficult to understand how the agency interprets the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. This is the law that defines what a food manufacturer must do and can not do with food that is sold in the United States and in many places is not clearly defined in black and white. A window to the agencys current thinking can be found in the Warning Letters that are issued to firms, in most cases as a follow-up to a facility inspection. FDA Warning Letters describe the situations that the agency officials found that were in violation with the FFDC Act. In my very first job out of college (more years ago than I want to remember) my boss introduced me to the publication Food Chemical News which each week describes the findings in the recent Warning Letters a good read for lessons learned from someone elses hard knocks. Now of course one doesnt need to subscribe to a separate publication for these lessons learned as Warning Letters are publicly available on the FDA website.
Since Seafood HACCP implementation in 1997, the vast majority of the Warning Letters issued to seafood firms are for violations of the Seafood HACCP regulation a prudent processor should read these letters to ensure that they can meet FDAs current expectations for compliance. Last year, FDA Commissioner, Dr. Hamburg, declared that the agency will be tougher on violations with swifter action action that the BSB supports. Along with this new approach for tough love is a focus on violations beyond food safety a consumer protection focus. Labeling that the agency felt was misleading for the consumer was the focus for several Warning Letters issued last month. And of course the Warning Letters issued to Registry Steaks and Seafood and Gourmet Express Marketing that addressed the issue that is of prime interest of the Better Seafood Board product that that agency determined was misbranded and adulterated due to glaze that was included in the net weight of the product.
Any firm that receives a Warning Letter has the right and responsibility to address the issues outlined in the letter. Commissioner Hamburg has instituteda novel program to encourage response from industry by making public the Warning Letter close-out process. Once corrections to violations have been successfully made, the agency will post a close-out letter like the one sent to Registry Steaks and Seafood earlier this month.
If you are interested in receiving weekly announcements of FDAs Warning Letters, click here a no-cost way to have a direct line to FDA.