September 15, 2015

Warner, Mikulski, Kaine, Wittman Urge Administration To Strengthen Efforts To Combat Seafood Fraud

WASHINGTON – Today U.S. Sens. Mark Warner (D-VA), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Tim Kaine (D-VA) and U.S. Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA) urged President Obama to protect Virginia and Maryland’s seafood industry by strengthening efforts to prevent seafood fraud. The fraudulent labeling of Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean blue crab meat has a detrimental impact on an industry that plays an important role in the Virginia and Maryland economies, generating nearly $30 million annually in ex-vessel revenue for commercial watermen in Virginia and over $58 million annually in Maryland. However, a recent investigation by Oceana found that nearly 40 percent of crab cakes advertised in Maryland and Washington restaurants as coming from the Chesapeake Bay were, in fact, imported – primarily from the Indo-Pacific region.

In order to combat this and other types of fraud, in June 2014 the White House established a Presidential Task Force, co-chaired by the Departments of State and Commerce, to develop recommendations to combat illegal fishing and seafood labeling fraud.

“While we welcome the efforts of the Task Force, we believe that two important changes to its draft recommendations are needed in order to fully and comprehensively prevent the fraudulent activities that are negatively impacting Virginia and Maryland watermen,” the Members wrote today in a letter to President Obama.

The Task Force released 15 draft recommendations in March, including strengthening enforcement and enhancing enforcement tools, creating and expanding partnerships with non-federal entities, and increasing information available on seafood products through additional traceability requirements. The Task Force followed up by releasing a draft list of at-risk species in July that will inform the first phase of the seafood traceability program.

In today’s letter, the Members pointed out that, under the Task Force’s draft recommendations, seafood would not be tracked beyond the first domestic point of sale. The members instead urged President Obama and the Task Force to adopt “bait to plate” tracking, requiring tracking and traceability all the way from its source to the consumer. Bait to plate tracking would prevent dishonest seafood processors in the U.S. from importing less-expensive foreign crab meat and repackaging it for sale to consumers as a “product of the United States.”

The Members also noted that “by listing only blue crab as an ‘at risk’ species, the proposal put forth by the Task Force fails to require documentation for the many species of crab that are known to be fraudulently substituted for blue crab and then sold in the U.S.  Such a system places the burden of labeling solely on honest watermen who follow the rules, rather than on those who produce the crab products that are fraudulently substituted for blue crab. We believe a comprehensive approach is needed to ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught, and honestly labeled. We encourage the Task Force to include these important changes.  Thank you again for your attention to this important issue.”

The full text of the letter appears below.

September 14, 2015

Dear President Obama, 

We agree with your administration that it is in the national interest of the United States to combat seafood fraud, and we thank you for your continued efforts to fight illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing and seafood fraud.

The fraudulent labeling of Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean blue crab meat has had a detrimental impact on an industry that plays an important role in Virginia and Maryland’s economies. Virginia’s blue crab fishery generates nearly $30 million annually in ex-vessel revenue for commercial watermen, while Maryland generates over $58 million annually. However, a recent investigation in Maryland and Washington D.C. found that 38 percent of crab cakes sold as Chesapeake blue crab were mislabeled. Tests revealed at least eight species other than blue crab present in the samples, with many coming instead from the Indo-Pacific and Mexican Pacific regions. This deceptive labeling misleads consumers and threatens the livelihood of the watermen in our states. We have a duty to protect the efforts of our honest fishermen and the economic gains from this resource.

We applaud you for launching the Presidential Task Force to Combat Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud in order to strengthen our efforts to prevent fraudulent seafood practices. While we welcome the efforts of the Task Force, we believe that two important changes to its draft recommendations are needed in order to fully and comprehensively prevent the fraudulent activities that are negatively impacting Virginia and Maryland watermen.

Our first concern is that the Task Force does not require tracking and traceability information to accompany seafood throughout the supply chain and beyond the first entry into U.S. commerce. In a letter to the Task Force on July 21, 2014, we raised the concern that some processors are legally importing foreign crab meat, repackaging it at a domestic processing facility, and then labeling it as a product of the United States. The result is that domestically harvested crabmeat is competing against less expensive foreign crabmeat fraudulently labeled as a “product of the United States.” In order to address the issue of mislabeled crab meat, the final regulation should not end traceability and tracking at the first point of sale, but must follow seafood along the entire supply chain – from bait to plate.

Secondly, by listing only blue crab as an “at risk” species, the proposal put forth by the Task Force fails to require documentation for the many species of crab that are known to be fraudulently substituted for blue crab and then sold in the U.S.  Such a system places the burden of labeling solely on honest watermen who follow the rules, rather than on those who produce the crab products that are fraudulently substituted for blue crab. 

We believe a comprehensive approach is needed to ensure that all seafood sold in the U.S. is safe, legally caught, and honestly labeled. We encourage the Task Force to include these important changes.  Thank you again for your attention to this important issue.

Sincerely,

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