What do 500 of America's chefs, including Mario Batali, Jacques Pepin and Barton Seaver, have in common besides finely-tuned palates, world-class cooking skills and a love of delicious and beautiful ingredients? It is a passion for honest food and a desire to stop seafood fraud, a surprisingly widespread practice in which cheap, unsustainable or even dangerous seafood is mislabeled as something else.
That's why these chefs and restaurant owners all signed a letter sent to the federal government requesting that the seafood we eat in this country be traced from "boat to plate."
Chefs recognize that we can only prepare and eat safe and sustainable seafood dishes if we are given honest information about how these products are harvested, bought and sold. They also realize that the current system isn't designed to ensure that accountability is a constant player in seafood production.
Our current system is failing because it's filled with flaws that create an enormous opportunity for seafood to be mislabeled. Ninety-one percent of the seafood we consume in the United States is imported, but less than two percent is inspected. Of that, less than one percent is inspected specifically for fraud. On its way from China to the U.S., a single fish may make several stops through a long supply chain before it reaches the plate. In some cases, it may travel from fisherman, to at-sea processor, to land processor and then to distributor, all before reaching the restaurant. Mislabeling can and does happen at any point in this chain.
Along with this lack of oversight, different species of fish, once filleted, can look very similar to one another, making fraudulent activities fairly simple to pull off. Once processed, escolar (which can cause gastrointestinal issues if more that the serving size is consumed) can pass as white tuna, and tilapia can be easily disguised as red snapper. In today's global market, once the initial processing happens, the fillets of fish are easier to mislabel than whole fish.
As a result, recent studies show that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 70 percent of the time for commonly swapped (and just as commonly consumed) species like red snapper, wild salmon, and Atlantic cod. It happens for a myriad of reasons: to rip off consumers, to avoid tariffs, or to sneak illegal fish into the marketplace. But whatever the cause, the end result is the same. Our wallets, our health and the environment pay the price.
The solution to this problem is relatively simple. We need to ensure that the seafood sold in the United States is traced from "boat to plate." Information about the species' true names, location of their catch and how a fish was caught are critical for health, economics and ocean conservation. Comprehensive tracking that follows a fish throughout the supply chain is the only way to ensure this information makes it to the consumer, be it the diner in a restaurant or the individual preparing a meal at home. The technology for traceability already exists, but it needs to become the standard across the board.
In an effort to stop seafood fraud, Representatives Edward Markey (D-MA) and Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced the Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood (SAFE Seafood) Act (H.R. 6200) in July, which would require full traceability for all seafood sold in the U.S. The law would require that handlers throughout the supply chain, from fish packers to purchasers in supermarkets and restaurants, provide details about all seafood, including scientific name, market name and region where it was caught.
Chefs want nothing more than to provide their diners with the highest quality products available, while ensuring that these ingredients are sustainable, healthy and honestly labeled, but we need the government to do their part as well. So join this alliance of chefs, Congressmen and concerned citizens as we demand more action on seafood fraud.
To read the letter, and for a complete list of its signers, please visit www.oceana.org/chefletter.