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State moves to take action against mislabeling of fish

Panel weighs DNA testing, bar coding

John Tlumacki /Globe Staff

Suzanne Condon, associate commissioner of the state’s public health department, said banning certain species, like escolar, could be considered.

State officials are considering the use of DNA testing to combat fish mislabeling, weighing a ban on the sale of escolar, and launching a pilot program in partnership with Legal Sea Foods to trace fish through the supply chain.

Leaders of various Massachusetts agencies disclosed these new efforts during a three-hour hearing on fish mislabeling held yesterday by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure.

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The initiatives follow a Globe investigation in October that uncovered widespread seafood misrepresentation at restaurants and lax government oversight. The five-month effort revealed that Massachusetts consumers regularly overpay for less valued species or unwittingly purchase seafood that is different from what is advertised on the menu.

The Globe hired a lab in Canada to conduct DNA tests on fish that reporters purchased across the region. The results showed that nearly half, or 87 of the 183 seafood samples, were sold with the wrong species name. Such mislabeling can put consumers at risk of suffering allergic reactions, violating dietary restrictions, or ingesting chemicals banned in the United States.

“We are taking this seriously,’’ Barbara Anthony, undersecretary of the state’s Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, said yesterday during her testimony. “When there are market failures, that’s a problem.’’

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She said her agency, the state Department of Public Health, and the Department of Fish and Game, have had preliminary discussions about fish genetics testing with the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth School for Marine Science and Technology, and hope to present a plan of action to state officials in coming weeks.

Members of the consumer protection committee repeatedly raised concerns yesterday about escolar, a species that is frequently substituted for white tuna and is banned in Japan because it can make people sick. The Globe-sponsored DNA testing found that nearly all 23 white tuna samples tested as escolar, nicknamed the “ex-lax’’ fish by some in the industry. The Food and Drug Administration, which oversees the labeling of imported and domestically shipped fish, advises against the sale of escolar in the United States because of its potential health risks.

When the committee asked why Massachusetts does not ban the sale of escolar, Suzanne Condon, associate commissioner of the state’s health department, responded: “That’s something we’d like to talk a bit more about with our partners at the FDA. . . . It might be something we could take further regulatory actions on.’’

In the meantime, the health departmentis launching a statewide education and outreach program alerting seafood wholesalers that misbranding is not tolerated. The state’s public health commissioner, John Auerbach, testified that the agency plans to inform local health inspectors about the laws related to the sale of fish and steps to take if fraud is suspected.

Massachusetts already has some laws against the sale of misleading seafood that carry potential fines of $500, but lawmakers said there is apparently no agency charged with enforcing the rules.

The health department is also partnering with the industry, including the well-known restaurant chain and wholesaler Legal Sea Foods, to create a pilot program in one or two communities that would track fish through the supply chain using bar codes. For example, fish would be taggedso that it could be traced as it moves from wholesaler to restaurants, and then local health inspectors could verify if the product is sold by merchants with the correct species names. The pilot program is in the planning stages, with the goal to initiate the program in the spring.

“There are regulations out there, but the feds haven’t really paid attention to them,’’ Roger Berkowitz, chief executive of Legal Sea Foods, said yesterday. “It’s really a question of enforcing. A public-private partnership is the quickest and most effective way of eliminating fraud.’’

Representative James Cantwell, a Marshfield Democrat, said he plans to address concerns about fish mislabeling at the first full meeting this month of the Seafood Marketing Commission, a new group made up of lawmakers, industry officials, and fishermen, among others.

Cantwell, in his testimony yesterday, said he wants to create state standards for labeling domestic and imported seafood so that they are uniformly identified with the same name no matter where they are sold. He also plans to introduce proposals to increase scrutiny of seafood processors.

Gib Brogan, of Oceana, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., that is campaigning against seafood fraud, said fish mislabeling hurts consumers and the work of honest, law-abiding fishermen, who deserve to be paid fairly for their catches.

“Allowing imports to be mislabeled as local Massachusetts catch is a direct threat to the Massachusetts fishing fleet and to the world’s oceans,’’ Brogan said.

Oceana also discovered seafood substitution last year when it conducted DNA tests of fresh and frozen fish at 15 Boston-area supermarkets. Nearly one in five fillets tested had the wrong species name, Oceana said. Atlantic cod was the most frequently misrepresented fish.

“It’s clear there has been no oversight on fish mislabeling - none,’’ said Representative Theodore C. Speliotis, a Danvers Democrat and cochairman of the consumer protection committee. “This hearing is really just the first step.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jennabelson.
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