Seafood Fraud:

FDA Program Changes and Better Collaboration among Key Federal Agencies Could Improve Detection and Prevention

GAO-09-258: Published: Feb 19, 2009. Publicly Released: Mar 20, 2009.

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In 2007, Americans consumed almost 5 billion pounds of seafood. Most seafood buyers, at many levels--importers, distributors, supermarkets, restaurants, and individual consumers--assume that the seafood they buy is what the seller claims it is. However, this is not always the case. Sometimes seafood products are mislabeled for financial gain--an activity called seafood fraud. Three federal agencies play key roles in detecting and preventing seafood fraud: the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Department of Commerce's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and the Department of Health and Human Services' Food and Drug Administration (FDA). GAO was asked to determine (1) the actions key federal agencies take to help detect and prevent seafood fraud and (2) the extent to which these key federal agencies collaborate with each other to help detect and prevent seafood fraud. GAO reviewed data and documents from each agency on actions to detect and prevent seafood fraud, and interviewed agency officials and other key stakeholders.

CBP and NMFS conduct several activities to help detect and prevent seafood fraud, but FDA told GAO that it focuses on food safety and undertakes few fraud-related activities. Nonetheless, fraud can result in food safety problems. For example, fish that was mislabeled as a different species for financial gain has caused illnesses due to the presence of a potentially deadly toxin. (1) CBP reviews seafood import documentation to detect schemes to avoid paying the appropriate customs duties as seafood products enter the country, among other things. (2) NMFS addresses seafood fraud through its voluntary, fee-for-service inspection program, which includes inspecting seafood that retailers, among others, are purchasing to verify its net weight and ensure the species is correctly identified. According to NMFS officials, NMFS inspects approximately one-third of the seafood consumed in the United States. (3) FDA examines only about 2 percent of imported seafood annually, and its primary seafood oversight program does not address economic fraud risks, which limits its ability to detect fraud. An FDA seafood fraud-related activity is the maintenance of a publicly available list of seafood names that is intended to help the industry correctly label products. However, until 2009, FDA had not fully updated the list it created in 1993 to reflect over 400 name changes. Finally, FDA's guidance to help seafood processors comply with its seafood oversight program does not reflect the seafood labeling requirement of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004 to include the species of fish or shellfish on product labels. Because of the limited scope of FDA's seafood oversight program, its mismanagement of the Seafood List, and its failure to update its guidance to reflect the allergen labeling requirement, consumers have less assurance that the seafood they purchase is correctly labeled. The federal agencies that share responsibility for detecting and preventing seafood fraud--CBP, NMFS, and FDA--do not effectively collaborate with each other. Specifically, they have not identified a common goal, established joint strategies, or agreed on roles and responsibilities. As a result, the agencies have not taken advantage of opportunities to share information that could benefit each agency's efforts to detect and prevent seafood fraud, nor have they identified similar and sometimes overlapping activities that could be better coordinated to use limited resources more efficiently. For example, each agency has its own laboratory capability for determining seafood species and uses different methodologies for creating standards for species identification. The result is that neither the laboratories nor the data developed in them are shared.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help reduce the prevalence of seafood fraud and improve FDA's actions to detect and prevent seafood fraud, the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration should propose amendments to FDA's seafood Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP) regulations to include requirements that covered facilities include control points that can be used to identify and mitigate economic fraud risks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Food and Drug Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FDA determined that a proposal to amend the seafood HACCP regulations was not warranted. According to FDA, the agency has provided information on how illicit substitution of one speicies for another can impact the identification of species-related hazards. In addition, FDA added "The Effect of Misbranding through Species Subsitution on the Identification of Potential Species-Related Hazards", to its HACCP hazards guidance for fish and fishery products. We continue to believe that effective measures against seafood fraud have to be built into the processing of seafood.

    Recommendation: To help reduce the prevalence of seafood fraud and improve FDA's actions to detect and prevent seafood fraud, the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration should provide the opportunity for stakeholder comments prior to formalizing any changes to the Seafood List not required by law or regulation and routinely update the public version of the list whenever FDA makes any changes.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Food and Drug Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FDA has updated its Seafood list, developed and published on its publicliy available website the guidance and criteria for making changes to its list, and has stated that it plans to allow public comments on its guidance and on changes to the list.

    Recommendation: To help reduce the prevalence of seafood fraud and improve FDA's actions to detect and prevent seafood fraud, the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration should update the Fish and Fisheries Products Hazards and Controls Guidance to reflect the seafood labeling requirements of the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Food and Drug Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In April 2011, FDA issued its revised Fish and Fisheries Products Hazards and Controls Guidance to reflect the labeling requriements of the Food Allergen Labeling Consumer Protection Act of 2004.

    Recommendation: To maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of each agency's efforts to detect and prevent seafood fraud and to increase interagency collaboration, improve information sharing, and reduce overlaps, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration should develop goals, strategies, and mechanisms to share information and resources related to seafood fraud detection and prevention across agency boundaries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Office of the Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: CBP, FDA, and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have begun to meet to discuss methods to better collaborate but the agencies have not provided written documentation of systematic collaboration. Without such information to show that the agencies have developed goals, strategies and mechanisms to share information and resources related to seafood fraud detection and prevention, the agencies have not established a formal process to collaborate on this issue.

    Recommendation: To maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of each agency's efforts to detect and prevent seafood fraud and to increase interagency collaboration, improve information sharing, and reduce overlaps, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration should develop goals, strategies, and mechanisms to share information and resources related to seafood fraud detection and prevention across agency boundaries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Food and Drug Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: CBP, FDA, and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have begun to meet to discuss methods to better collaborate but the agencies have not provided written documentation of systematic collaboration. Without such information to show that the agencies have developed goals, strategies and mechanisms to share information and resources related to seafood fraud detection and prevention, the agencies have not established a formal process to collaborate on this issue.

    Recommendation: To maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of each agency's efforts to detect and prevent seafood fraud and to increase interagency collaboration, improve information sharing, and reduce overlaps, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration should create a federal agencywide library of seafood species standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009 FDA signed an interagency agreement with the Smithsonian Institute to curate a DNS species library. According to CBP, all three agencies have decided to use the Smithsonian Institute's FISHBOL as the repository for the fish standards all three laboratories intend to use. According to FDA, all three agencies have met to coordinate the use of the library and two of the agencies sent Representatives to receive training on a protocol for validation of DNA barcoding. The NMFS has collected additional species that will be provided to the Smithsonian to include in the library. FDA, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and CBP have participated in joint training on DNA barcoding procedures and the three parties have agreed to move forward with species identification using mutually agreeable methods and the joint development and use of the species library that will be held by the Smithsonian NMNH.

    Recommendation: To maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of each agency's efforts to detect and prevent seafood fraud and to increase interagency collaboration, improve information sharing, and reduce overlaps, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration should create a federal agencywide library of seafood species standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Food and Drug Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009 FDA signed an interagency agreement with the Smithsonian Institute to curate a DNS species library. According to CBP, all three agencies have decided to use the Smithsonian Institute's FISHBOL as the repository for the fish standards all three laboratories intend to use. According to FDA, all three agencies have met to coordinate the use of the library and two of the agencies sent Representatives to receive training on a protocol for validation of DNA barcoding. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has collected additional species that will be provided to the Smithsonian to include in the library. FDA, NMFS and CBP have participated in joint training on DNA barcoding procedures and the three parties have agreed to move forward with species identification using mutually agreeable methods and the joint development and use of the species library that will be held by the Smithsonian NMNH.

    Recommendation: To maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of each agency's efforts to detect and prevent seafood fraud and to increase interagency collaboration, improve information sharing, and reduce overlaps, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration should develop goals, strategies, and mechanisms to share information and resources related to seafood fraud detection and prevention across agency boundaries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Border and Transportation Security: Bureau of Customs and Border Protection

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: CBP, FDA, and National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have begun to meet to discuss methods to better collaborate but the agencies have not provided written documentation of systematic collaboration. Without such information to show that the agencies have developed goals, strategies and mechanisms to share information and resources related to seafood fraud detection and prevention, the agencies have not established a formal process to collaborate on this issue.

    Recommendation: To maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of each agency's efforts to detect and prevent seafood fraud and to increase interagency collaboration, improve information sharing, and reduce overlaps, the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and the Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration should create a federal agencywide library of seafood species standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: Office of the Under Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2009 FDA signed an interagency agreement with the Smithsonian Institute to curate a DNS species library. According to CBP, all three agencies have decided to use the Smithsonian Institute's FISHBOL as the repository for the fish standards all three laboratories intend to use. According to FDA, all three agencies have met to coordinate the use of the library and two of the agencies sent Representatives to receive training on a protocol for validation of DNA barcoding. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has collected additional species that will be provided to the Smithsonian to include in the library. FDA, NMFS and CBP have participated in joint training on DNA barcoding procedures and the three parties have agreed to move forward with species identification using mutually agreeable methods and the joint development and use of the species library that will be held by the Smithsonian NMNH.

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