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Markey, Frank file legislation aimed at stopping seafood mislabeling

US Representative Barney Frank

REUTERS File

US Representative Barney Frank

WASHINGTON — The fish industry would have to publicly track fish from the boat to the plate under a sweeping new seafood fraud bill introduced Wednesday by US representatives Edward Markey and Barney Frank that imposes hefty fines for violators.

The Safety and Fraud Enforcement for Seafood Act, or SAFE Seafood Act, comes nearly a year after a Globe report revealed widespread seafood substitution in restaurants across Massachusetts. Results of the five-month investigation published last fall found nearly half of the fish tested at 134 restaurants and supermarkets was mislabeled. In many cases, less desirable and cheaper species took the place of fresh local fish.

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“When people walk into a restaurant and put down hard-earned money for a favorite fish, they expect to get what they ordered, especially in New England,” Markey said. “If businesses are fraudulently serving a substitute, then it’s just wrong and has to be stopped. This bill increases inspections, it increases penalties, and it increases coordination at the federal level and with state and local agencies.”

The bill would require fish packers, supermarkets, and restaurants to provide details about all seafood, including the scientific name, the market name, and the geographic region where the fish was caught. The proposed legislation also calls for greater cooperation between the Food and Drug Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration so they share more information about seafood substitution, create a public list of mislabeling offenders, and avoid conducting duplicate inspections at seafood plants.

The two agencies were criticized in a government report in 2009 for failing to do enough to fight fish fraud and coordinate inspection efforts. For example, the FDA inspected 315 domestic seafood facilities that NOAA also examined between 2005 and 2009.

The bill does not allocate more funds for enforcement, but Markey said a better working relationship between the FDA and NOAA would have resulted in a 29 percent increase in domestic inspections annually.

“Ideally, you would have more money for inspections, but understanding the tight budget climate, improving coordination among agencies and eliminating duplications is good step in the right direction,” said Beth Lowell, a campaign director for Oceana, a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C., that is focused on ending fish mislabeling.

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But Lowell added that inspections alone will not solve the problem, and pointed to a report the group released this week that found 31 percent of seafood is mislabeled in South Florida, despite ongoing efforts by state and local authorities to improve labeling accuracy. DNA testing — similar to the method used by the Globe last year — confirmed that nearly one-third of the 96 fish samples collected by Oceana from 60 retail outlets were misrepresented. Seafood substitution not only costs consumers, it also can pose health risks and undermine people’s efforts to eat only food from sustainable sources.

The tracing requirements in the SAFE Seafood Act, according to Lowell, will help bring urgently needed transparency to the fish industry.

“It’s clear that mislabeling is not a regional, isolated problem. It’s a national problem that needs federal attention to impact the seafood supply chain,” Lowell said.

The proposed law also empowers the FDA to refuse imported seafood based on fraud — previously it could only do so based on safety concerns. An FDA spokesman declined to comment on the bill.

Tom Dempsey, policy director for the Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Association, said seafood fraud, including mislabeling, undermines local fishermen’s efforts to get paid for a premium product.

“You see all sorts of things labeled as Chatham day boat cod, and more often than not, they are not what they are purported to be and that hurts our bottom line,” Dempsey said. “The legislation is a real step in the right direction.”

He said the group also wants state officials to step up enforcement on fish fraud and provide more resources to help the industry launch traceability initiatives.

Massachusetts prohibits the sale of mislabeled seafood and violators face potential fines of $500, but state lawmakers have said there is apparently no agency charged with enforcing the rules. The proposed federal bill would allow states to levy much heftier fines for seafood fraud — up to $10,000 per violation.

“There is a growing consumer base that really cares about where their seafood comes from and it can have a really sweeping impact on the business of fishing in New England,” Dempsey said.

Roger Berkowitz, president and chief executive of the Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain, said he has reviewed a draft of the bill and supports the initiative.

“I think this legislation is comprehensive enough, particularly in the arena of seafood fraud, to be effective,” Berkowitz said.

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.

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