andrew schneider investigates

May 26, 2009

Crime lab tools can identify mislabeled and smuggled seafood faster and easier and diners might get the fish they pay for.

Filed under: Food labeling,Food Safety,Government & corporate wrong-doing,Seafood — Andrew Schneider @ 05:37

Food scientists are taking a page out of the crime fighting handbook to figure out whether consumers and restaurants are actually getting the seafood they are paying for.

A study published in the Journal of Food Science and Technology demonstrates that a DNA testing can quickly and inexpensively  tell you whether the fish you’re paying for is actually what you thought you were buying.

Food Scientist Rosalee Rasmussen

Food Scientist Rosalee Rasmussen Photo by Lynn Ketchum

“Fish and seafood substitution has become an important concern in domestic and international marketplaces, in part due to increased international trade, per capita seafood consumption, and production of processed foods,” says Rosalee Rasmussen of Oregon State University seafood laboratories in Astoria.

Investigators with the Food and Drug Administration say “economic deception or fraud in the sale of seafood occurs when a less expensive species is substituted for a more expensive species.” And, they added, “this misbranding is a federal crime.”

In the past, federal investigators have brought charges against importers and suppliers who knowingly misidentified species of fish to avoid paying steep import tariffs imposed to protect both U.S. fishers and endangered fish.

In at least two of the cases, the motivation to test the seafood came from obvious fraud on the shipping papers and, in the other, an informant.

Less expensive rockfish is often substituted for more expensive red snapper; yellowtail tuna instead of Mahi; sea bass for halibut; farm-raised Atlantic salmon for the finer tasting and richer wild Pacific, and even roe from paddlefish labeled as caviar from sturgeon.

In the article, Rasmussen and Prof. Michael Morrissey with the university’s Food Innovation Center in Portland, examined the impact of identifying bogus fish using the DNA techniques more common to CSI crime labs.

Both Rasmussen and federal food investigators say the amount of mislabeling actually is difficult to pin down because there is very little monitoring of the commercial fish supplies

“For example,” Rasmussen told me, “over 80 percent of the U.S. seafood supply is imported, but the FDA only examines about 2 percent of imported seafood.”

Last week, an FDA supervisor said she agreed with the Oregon scientists.

“We have so very few inspectors watching imported food that seafood is really low on the list,” she said. But “things may get better,” she said, because in March President Obama said he would “substantially increase the number of (FDA) food inspectors and modernize food safety labs.”

William Marler, one of the nation’s top food safety litigators, described the mislabeling as more of a fraud issue than a safety concern because fish and other seafood products, imported or not, make up a very small part of food that poisons consumers.

“From a consumer’s perspective of knowing if what they’re paying for is actually the seafood they thought they were buying, spot DNA testing makes much sense,” said the Seattle-based lawyer.

The food journal article is a compilation of substitution studies conducted by many scientists who have examined whitefish, such as hake, Pollock, and cod; tunas such as skipjack, albacore, yellowfin, and bluefin; and sturgeons, sharks and even commercial whale meat, Rasmussen explained.

I spoke to buyers and fishmongers at two national food chains who said they rarely get taken because they work closely with their suppliers and usually deal with the whole fish, which is easier to identify before it’s packaged as filets or steaks.  Much more likely targets, they said, are restaurants or institutional buyers who purchase much of their imported fish cut and packaged into serving sizes.

Rasmussen  cautioned that diners and consumers will have a much more difficult time telling if mislabeling has occurred if their dinner  has been further processed, such as breaded and fried.

Here is a link to the journal article.

For a more extensive listing of seafood most often wrongly labeled, here is a link to an FDA website.


March 18, 2009

It’s the law. Country of origin must be labeled on many food items but thousands still slip through the government net

Filed under: FDA,Food Safety,Seafood,USDA — Andrew Schneider @ 09:29

There was a time when imported food was coveted, a way to impress your neighbors, friends and colleagues with prosciutto from Italy, sea conchs from Chile, stinky cheese from Denmark, eggplant preserve from Greece, snails from France, and the list went on. 

However, now that a good hunk of our food comes from abroad two things have happened. First, the novelty has worn off, with even the most exotic products available at the corner store. But second, some of that intriguing “foreign” food has been bad. Not a lot, but enough to get the attention of shoppers. 

Many consumers don’t even want to buy rice from China, but we can’t blame all the lack of attention to food safety to overseas suppliers. salmon-with-cool-tags

It has been months since the first reports of salmonella poisoning from Georgia peanuts surfaced, and again today I received emails from the FDA warning me of nine additional peanut products to avoid. 

As of Monday, and at long last, the USDA has given food shoppers what they think they want – a country of origin or COOL label on many grocery store products.

The new detailed label is supposed to be affixed to farm-raised shellfish and fish, most poultry, beef, lamb, pork and goat, and almost all perishable fruits, vegetables and nuts.

But as I’ve warned before, the program that will cost between $60 million and $100 million a year to implement, has enormous loopholes which exclude mandatory labeling on thousands of processed foods and mixtures.

For example, mix carrots from Chile with peas from Honduras, and the country of origin need not be revealed. The same applies to chicken or meat that’s breaded, marinated or processed in any way.

The labeling is designed to give consumers more information on where the food they buy comes from, but the government stresses that the new labels do not ensure the quality or safety of the food to which they’re attached. 

However, if the FDA if recalling tomatoes from Mexico or peppers from Guatemala or lettuce from Brazil, the labels would give careful shoppers more information on what to avoid.

Country-of-origin labeling is not new.

Karen Nachay of Food Technology magazine says that almost 80 years ago, the Tariff Act of 1930 required that all manufactured goods imported into the United States list the country of origin.

Getting this labeling law implemented is a complex and sometimes ugly story but Karen’s article does an outstanding job of giving the reader a detailed look at how COOL was stalled, delayed and finally passed, and what it really means to both consumers and the food industry. Here is the link to her fine story. I just wish I had it years ago when I was stumbling to understand the issue.


July 14, 2008

Diseased water runs from lab

Filed under: Environmental health issues,EPA,Salmon,Seafood — Andrew Schneider @ 16:16

Those of us living along Puget Sound do a pretty good job of contaminating the water to the point that wild salmon have a difficult time of it, and we don’t need help from anyone else in making the Sound more precarious to our delectable finned friends.

Nevertheless, there are reports that large volumes of untreated water “laced with fish diseases” was discharged from a University of Victoria laboratory through Victoria’s questionable sewage system and into the water north of the sound.

According to Andrew MacLeod of TheTyee, the problem was only the latest at the lab used by Microtek Research and Development Ltd., a company that makes vaccines for the fish farming and hatchery industries.

The Tyee, a native word for king salmon above 30 pounds, is a daily online magazine covering British Columbia.

As part of a series of three investigative reports on this, the Web magazine collected a large number of university documents and internal e-mails to support its reporting. MacLeod wrote that Microtek, which is the largest user of the university’s aquatic facility, is involved in studying diseases and developing vaccines not only for salmon, but also tilapia and rainbow trout. The Tyee also reported the firm is studying diseased Atlantic salmon, and wrote that “at least one experiment involved sea lice, a parasite some salmon researchers say likely spreads from fish farms to wild fish.”

Several of the huge pens containing millions of faux salmon have been infected with sea lice in the past several months, according to Canadian environmentalists.

Documents discussed in the Web magazine’s reporting show university officials concerned about the safety of the pathogens from the fish lab being released into the waste water.

Tyee said Environment Canada was not notified by the spring release. I made a couple of calls to managers in the Seattle regional office of the U.S. EPA and uncovered no U.S. knowledge of the release.

However, the EPA officials responsible for keeping the sound clean have long been frustrated Victoria’s dumping of untreated sewage into water which flows into the Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

But, at last, our Canadian neighbors say they are finally “planning” to build a proper treatment system.

if you want to checkout The Tyee’s investigation, here’s a link to their site.

For more information on the company doing the research, here is a link to Microtek’s Web site.

May 16, 2008

Smoked seafod recalled

Filed under: FDA,Food Safety,Seafood — Andrew Schneider @ 11:23

If you’ve got dried smoked catfish or other smoked seafood from Hope Seafood Supply in your pantry or refrigerator, throw it out, says the Food and Drug Administration.

The food safety agency ordered the Pasadena, Texas, plant shut down and demanded an immediate recall of all seafood products manufactured at the facility since 2007.

The company, which distributes its catfish steaks and other seafood items nationwide, failed to develop and implement an adequate Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point for its fishery products, FDA said.

FDA’s regulations require that all seafood processors implement plans that identify all food safety hazards that are likely to occur for each kind of seafood product that they process, and establish measures to control those hazards.

Without adequate controls, FDA said, the company’s seafood products could harbor pathogenic bacteria such as staphylococcus aureus and listeria monocytogenes. These kinds of pathogens can cause serious illnesses in people who eat them.

“We simply will not allow a company to put the public’s health at risk by not implementing adequate procedures and plans to produce safe food,” said Margaret Glavin, associate commissioner for regulatory affairs. “The FDA will take action against companies and against their executives who violate the law and endanger public health.”

Consumers who have been eating these products and have experienced adverse reactions should consult their health care professional.
For more information, see the FDA news release. Also, consumers can call the FDA’s toll-free Food Safety Hotline at 1-888-SAFEFOOD.

May 13, 2008

GAO urges caution on ocean fish farms

Filed under: Public health legislation,Salmon,Seafood,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 15:51

Let’s talk about fish. Or more specifically, aquaculture, which is the farming of fish and shellfish.

EPA Aquatic Biologist Dave Terpening at one of Idaho’s many fish farms. PI Photo

There are fish farms all across the country. Small mom and pop operations raising catfish in backyard ponds and streams can be found in at least 19 states. Idaho is home to about 60 seafood operations including an alligator breeder and the nation’s largest rainbow and golden trout farms. According to federal investigators, the salmon aquaculture industry in the United States is concentrated in Maine and Washington, with at least eight Atlantic salmon farms floating in Puget Sound alone. Just a bit north, there are another 120 salmon ranches along the inlets, bays and straits of British Columbia.

Of course an alligator is seafood. Ask them in Idaho. PI Photo

As wild salmon grow more scarce due to environmental disruption and diminished water flow on the fish’s traditional spawning rivers, the growth of aquaculture has increased. Enormously in some areas. But some breeders and the White House say the fish pens in coastal waters are not enough to produce the salmon and other finfish needed to supply the market.

The big business “farmers” want permission to build sprawling complexes of floating pens, nets and cages in deep water miles offshore. This is the United States’ Exclusive Economic Zone, which covers three to 200 nautical miles from shore. Thus, opening shop for anything in this hunk of ocean becomes a matter of federal jurisdiction, not state.

As it happens, there are few if any laws on the books to regulate this new concept in fish farming.

In a surprising example of the government actually getting ahead of a problem, the White House last year pushed for the creation of the National Offshore Aquaculture Act, which would give the Commerce Department the authority to regulate offshore aquaculture.

Rep. Nick Rahall, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, introduced the bill in April 2007 “as a favor to the administration. ” Two months earlier he had asked the Government Accountability Office to determine how such an unusual, deepwater, economic activity should be handled to protect the oceans and the food supply.

The GAO issued its 54-page report this week.

Rahall said the administration’s proposed bill doesn’t go far enough to ensure adequate protection for the marine environment.

“This new report makes abundantly clear what I have long believed – any offshore aquaculture development must be done in a manner that does not jeopardize the health of our oceans or the viability of the fishing industry,” said the West Virginia Democrat.

The GAO report identifies several important safeguards that need to be carefully considered before permits are issued to anyone. These include:
� The appointment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration as the lead federal agency to regulate and permit any offshore aquaculture facilities.

� The clear delineation of the roles and responsibilities of other federal agencies and states in the administration of these businesses.

� The establishment of a permitting and site selection process that clearly identifies the terms and conditions for offshore aquaculture operations.

� The implementation of a regulatory process to review, monitor, and mitigate the potential environmental impacts of offshore aquaculture facilities.

The congressional investigators also called for additional research on developing fish feeds that do not rely heavily on harvesting wild fish; exploring how escaped offshore aquaculture-raised fish might impact wild fish populations; and developing strategies to breed and raise fish while effectively managing possible disease.

We’ll get into a look at the oyster, mussels, shrimp and other shellfish growers in another posting.

May 8, 2008

Feds ignore misused organic seafood tag

The feds aren’t protecting consumers from imported seafood wrongly called “organic,” so two leading food safety advocacy groups have asked the top law enforcement officers in every state to halt this misleading practice.

The Center for Food Safety and Food & Water Watch said it is wrong to label imports as “organic,” when there are no U.S. organic seafood standards in place.

They sent letters to the AGs in each state telling them that the USDA and the Federal Trade Commission have failed to prevent consumer deception by enforcing the few existing organic labeling laws and regulations.

The practice is a violation of the states’ consumer deception and misrepresentation laws, the groups said.

“Allowing importers to label their seafood ‘organic’ when it does not have to meet any U.S. standards is a disservice to American consumers, who have come to trust and believe in the organic label,” said Joseph Mendelson, legal director of the Center for Food Safety.

“USDA’s refusal to stop importers from calling their products organic when many of them use antibiotics, parasiticides, or feed that would not be permitted under U.S. regulations is dishonest,” he said.

Three years ago, California passed a law preventing the labeling of any seafood as “organic” until federal standards are finalized and in place.

Only now is the USDA in the process of establishing organic regulations for finfish and shellfish but the process may take up to two years.

With U.S. sales of organic food dramatically increasing, an increasing amount of foreign seafood imports labeled as “organic” have appeared to take advantage of this emerging market, the organizations said.

“It is time for other states to follow California’s example and stop the abuse of the organic label on imported seafood,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch.

May 4, 2008

Keta can sub for $30-a-pound King salmon

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Good food,Salmon,Seafood — Andrew Schneider @ 22:48

The timing was great.

With prices for some wild king salmon soaring higher than $30 a pound, dozens of chefs, fishermen and seafood mongers demonstrated how to put tasty and nutritional wild salmon on the plate that costs about a tenth as much.

The stars of the show on Saturday at Seattle’s Fisherman’s Terminal was keta, or chum, salmon and pink salmon. Fourteen teams of BBQers from throughout Washington lit their smokers and grills to compete in a fishy cook off where they had to prepare a keta filet, a pink salmon burger, a hunk of albacore tuna and a chowder made from halibut.

Chefs show how to cook Keta, By Andrew Schneider

The keta salmon coming off the Traegers, Webers and skillets were seasoned with almost every spice combination imaginable: curry, Cajun black rub, cumin, smoke-flavored salts and peppers, lemon juice, white wine, butter and garlic, always garlic.

Some cooks seared it quickly on both side to enhance the flavor and then moved it to a cooler part of grill or lowered the heat. One caution echoed by almost all was don’t overcook the keta.

The real creativity seemed to come with the pink salmon burgers. The chopped salmon was mixed with everything from full cloves of roasted garlic, to capers, mushrooms, sharp cheddar, blue cheese, peppers of all colors and heat.

Alder, apple and hickory smoke from the grills and the aroma of cooking salmon wafted across the scores of boats comprising Seattle’s portion of the berthed Alaska fishing fleet. Lines of eager samplers queued up at each of the competitor’s make-shift kitchens to taste what a little ingenuity can create out of the cheapest salmon. Few were disappointed. Many said they were surprised at the flavor, especially the burgers.

Several of the professional chefs and caterers said that keta will be showing up more frequently in restaurants as cooks come to appreciate the fish’s firm pink flesh, moderate fat content and delicate flavor.

“This is the fourth year for the Keta Festival and we hold it to show how great Keta and the pink salmon can taste when they’re properly prepared,” said Paula Cassidy. She and her husband, Jon Speltz, opened the Wild Salmon Seafood Market about 13 years ago and are one of the main sponsors of the event.

“There are few other places in the country where people are as experienced at recognizing quality salmon as we are here in Puget Sound, but Seattle is also full of salmon snobs,” Cassidy told me. “They think if it’s not King or Coho, it’s not worth eating. I’m sure that after tasting what these barbeque-ers and the professional chefs have done to the keta and pink, we’ve convinced a bunch of people that any salmon can be great as long as it’s wild salmon.”

One of the most popular venues was where John Van Amerongen from Trident Seafood was cutting 1-inch wide strips of Keta, removing the skin, rolling it into a pinwheel, running a couple of wooden skewers through it and seasoning it.

“I rub both sides with a little olive oil infused with some fresh rosemary, a bit of garlic salt and pepper,” said the chef. “I sear both sides in a hot (skillet), cover it, lower the heat and cook for about 10-minutes.”

Some, like Charlotte Wang and her 4-year-old daughter, lined up for seconds and thirds.
“This is amazing. It doesn’t have oil like King salmon but it still tasted great and I can afford it,” said Wang, who lives in Everett.

Knife wielders from Wild Salmon Seafood Market and Seattle culinary schools gave demonstrations of how to filet whole salmon, which may have been the most useful lesson of the day.

Knowing how to fillet a salmon can save big bucks.

Why? Check out the numbers: Filets of troll-caught Alaskan King was selling at $25.99 a pound. The whole King was selling for $17.99 a pound. For Keta, the fillets were $4.99 � or $2.99 a pound for a whole fish.

The experts said all that is needed to save a lot of money in your fish purchases is a sharp, inexpensive filet knife and a bit of practice. Soon you’ll be cutting your salmon steaks and filets to order and at a much lower price.

Keta was considered the best value on the market and that was before the Pacific Fishery Management Council canceled the commercial salmon season off California and Oregon.

Recipes and more information on wild salmon can be found on the Web
sites of the festival sponsors, which include the Port of Seattle, Puget Sound Salmon Commission, Washington Sea Grant, The Fishing Vessel St. Jude, Wild Salmon Seafood Market and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

March 20, 2008

Holiday fish rush eased

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Food Safety,Good food,Seafood — Andrew Schneider @ 09:26

Most Americans get their seafood at restaurants but, according to the Environmental Defense Fund, that changes between the Lenten season between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday when seafood sales for home consumption traditionally increase by 30 percent.

But the fish counter can be a confusing place for shoppers. I talked to fish mongers at Safeway, Metro Market and Fisherman’s Terminal and they agree that people are asking a lot more questions beyond “Is this fresh?”

Which seafood to buy? Photo by Andrew Schneider

The top queries included whether the possible closing of salmon fishing off California would be felt in the Northwest, and what about mercury contamination in swordfish and tuna, and of course, which seafood are environmentally-friendly choices. The answer to the first question is there is no cause to worry about getting wild salmon at markets in the Northwest . The managers of several stories told me that we get 90 percent of the wild salmon from waters between northern Oregon and Alaska and they anticipate no problems with supply.

There is now a simple way to get the answers and latest information on which seafood is safest and most plentiful, and get it while you’re shopping.

The Environmental Defense Fund and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program have long offered information to consumers on wallet cards and their Seafood Selector website. Now you can get the the latest guidance on your cell phone or other mobile device while deciding on what seafood to get at the market or restaurant.

Information on their “Seafood Selector To-Go” can be accessed here. The link will provide consumers with mobile information on more than 200 popular seafood choices.

March 10, 2008

Chemical colorings and farmed salmon

Filed under: Environmental health issues,FDA,Food additives,Food labeling,Salmon,Seafood — Andrew Schneider @ 10:00

Farm-raised salmon are being fed more like a cow than like a fish, at least according to Joe Schwarcz, who is the director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society.

Schwarcz is also a columnist for the Montreal Gazette and this week he pondered the chemical feed and coloring routinely added to make the gray-fleshed, captive fish look more like their brightly hued, robust, wild kin from the Pacific.

The coloring agent is astaxanthin, a naturally occurring pigment found in a variety of algae that serve as food for krill, shrimp and crayfish, favorite food of the ocean-cruising salmon and the source of the fish’s rich orange color.

Salmon labeled as farm-raised

But, Schwarcz reports that these days, however, most salmon are raised on fish farms. where they are fed pellets made from other fish. The feed lacks astaxanthin, so the salmon ranchers add it to the feed.

The commercial production of astaxanthin is a huge industry, relying on
three distinct processes, he writes. Fermentation of sugar by certain yeasts can
produce the compound, as can extraction from specially grown algae. But
the most economical, and therefore the most common process, relies on a
14-step chemical synthesis from raw materials sourced from petroleum. Actually, the name astaxanthin refers to any one of three very closely related compounds with very subtle differences in molecular structure.

Check out the professor’s report for more on the raising of this cash crop.

March 3, 2008

Save the environment. Eat a whale.

Filed under: Food - good, bad, weird,Seafood,Sustainable food — Andrew Schneider @ 17:09

The is carrying a story reporting a unique approach to rationalize the killing of whales,

The Norwegian-based High North Alliance supports whaling and the interests of coastal communities in the Arctic and says it has the numbers to prove that eating whale meat is “environmentally friendly.”

According to, the pro-whaling group says its studies suggest that 2.2 pounds of whale meat represented “just” 4.2 pounds of greenhouse gases against 15.8 pounds for beef, 6.4 for pork and 4.6 for chicken.

Rune Froevik of the Alliance says “Basically it turns out that the best thing you can do for the planet is to eat whale meat compared to other types of meat…Greenhouse gas emissions caused by one meal of beef are the equivalent of eight meals of whale meat”

Needless to say, Green Peace disagrees, but I couldn’t get its statement in time for this posting.

Whale is eaten by many in remote ares who cannot get other protein. When the Makah were preparing to hunt their first whale in 70 years, and assured critics that they would eat the whale, I interviewed people in the Arctic and elsewhere who cook whale as part of their diet. As this 1999 story tells it, Tabasco is very important to many recipes.

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