Food Fraud and Fish: New Guidance

29 Nov

Food Safety

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Food fraud—also known as economically motivated adulteration (EMA)—occurs when someone intentionally misrepresents a less expensive food product or ingredient for a more expensive one. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) estimates food fraud impacts about 1% of the food industry worldwide, though this number is likely higher since food fraud can be difficult to detect. Beyond its economic impacts, food fraud can cause significant health issues, ranging from lead poisoning to allergic reactions that may even result in death.

Seafood Fraud

Seafood fraud often happens when a less expensive species of fish is substituted for a more expensive species. For example, wild-caught salmon and shrimp are more expensive than farm-raised (i.e., aquacultured) salmon and shrimp. Producers who swap or mislabel fish to say it is wild caught when it is not can fraudulently earn higher profits at lower cost.

Misbranding such as this clearly results in economic fraud due to the market value of different species of fish. Of more concern, this misbranding may also prevent consumers from correctly identifying what they are eating—and the potential safety hazards associated with certain seafood. These hazards may include allergenic proteins, natural marine toxins, and scombrotoxin formation, which can all present food safety risks if the food is not accurately labeled.

This practice of mislabeling is prohibited under FDA’s Food, Drug, and Cosmetic (FD&C) Act Section 403: Misbranded Food. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Intentional Adulteration Rule further requires companies to implement preventive controls to protect against intentional adulteration of human and animal food. 

New Industry Guidance

In August 2023, FDA issued new industry guidance, including The Seafood List, to provide more information on the acceptable market, common, scientific, and vernacular names of seafood species sold in the U.S. The intent of this guidance is to:

  • Help industry properly label seafood and products containing seafood ingredients with a name that is not false or misleading.
  • Facilitate consistency in the U.S. marketplace.
  • Reduce confusion among consumers.

In September 2023, in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) also announced four new reference materials to help assess the authenticity of seafood and verify where fish is caught or produced. These reference materials specifically address Wild-caught Coho Salmon (RM 8256), Aquacultured Coho Salmon (RM 8257), Wild-caught Shrimp (RM 8258), and Aquacultured Shrimp (RM 8259), 

NIST’s reference materials are intended to help regulators and law enforcement agencies differentiate between farmed and wild-caught salmon and shrimp and assess whether imported salmon and shrimp are authentic:

  • For shrimp, genetic analysis methods are used to determine the origin of the shrimp, as wild-caught shrimp are a different species than aquacultured shrimp.
  • For salmon, scientists analyze the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids. Aquacultured salmon has roughly twice the amount of omega-3 fatty acids compared to wild-caught salmon. 

Importantly, these materials can also be used for food safety purposes and detecting allergens, as well as testing for metals and other contaminants. Values for crude protein are provided in the guidance for labs to detect allergens.

According to NIST chemist Benjamin Place, “If a food processing place can use the reference material to say this is the species that it is, then consumers can have more confidence. You now know when you go to a store, you can have full faith the seafood product is the species it says it is and that the labels are true.”

What You Can Do

As always, it is better to take a proactive approach to managing food fraud rather than being caught on the defensive. Facilities should:

  1. Conduct a vulnerability analysis to identify those areas that pose the greatest risk of food fraud or intentional adulteration. 
  2. Develop and implement a Food Defense Plan to outline risks, mitigation/prevention strategies, monitoring plans, corrective action response, verification activities, and recordkeeping policies.
  3. Train employees to understand what food fraud is, how to identify fraudulent products specific to their work, and their responsibilities in ensuring food safety by reporting suspicious materials.
  4. Conduct a mock exercise to assess the effectiveness of the Food Defense Plan and intentional adulteration programs.

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