Blake’s bill would stiffen penalties for mislabeling seafood

OLYMPIA — One of the top enforcement officers for the state Department of Fish & Wildlife says that lack of proper labeling on seafood products is leading consumers to purchase cheaper varieties of farmed fish at grocery stores and restaurants when they think they’re eating a premium variety.

As a result, “tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of dollars in consumer fraud” is likely occurring on an ongoing basis, according to Deputy Chief Mike Cenci, with the state Department of Fish & Wildlife Law Enforcement division.

State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, says he wants to provide better protections for both consumers and the industry to make sure what gets caught in the ocean off Westport is what actually lands on the dinner table, not farmed fish.

Blake’s legislation would make it a crime to knowingly sell or offer for sale any fresh, frozen, or processed fish or shellfish without identifying for the buyer at the point of sale the common name of what’s for sale and whether it’s farm-raised salmon or caught in the wild.

The legislation was heard Wednesday before the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee, which Blake chairs. He’s scheduled to vote it out of the committee next week.

“I don’t see a problem with it passing,” Blake said on Thursday. “The world is changing and markets and international markets are becoming more involved and there comes a time when you have to step in and give (Fish & Wildlife) the tools so these industries aren’t harmed and the consumer is treated fairly also.”

“It’s pretty unrealistic to expect the American consumer to know what fish is being sold unless you have some kind of labeling,” Cenci told the committee. “It’s all about protecting the consumer and the legitimate seafood industry and the high standards the industry has set for itself.”

Cenci also cited a study in 2006 that found that 50 percent of farmed salmon was being sold as wild fish, which fetches a higher price.

In the summer of 2011, a University of Washington Tacoma professor and her students released three years worth of data after conducting genetic tests proving a third of about 50 restaurants in the south Puget Sound had said they were serving wild Pacific salmon, when they were really serving Atlantic farmed salmon or said they were serving king salmon, when they were really serving cheaper Coho. The university never released the names of the restaurants and denied a request by The Daily World for the data when a public records request was submitted.

“Seafood is mislabeled as often as 25 to 75 percent of the time for fish,” Cenci said. “… You’re going to get disappointed if you don’t get what you pay for when you eat that fish.”

Officials with the Northwest Food Processors Association and the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers both testified they supported the bill with some minor changes.

For instance, on Willapa Harbor, premium oysters are grown and are often labeled differently than standard oysters, according to Jim Jesernig with the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers.

Cenci said inspectors are often present “at all levels of the marketplace, at restaurants, at the border, we inspect shipping companies.” Current law allows a fine for a first-time offense of $200. The proposed law changes it to craft three degrees of the crime with the most serious first-degree charges occurring if the value of the misbranded seafood exceeds $5,000, a Class C felony.

“The problem right now is that you really don’t know if the fish you bought for your family dinner is, in fact, what you paid for, because our existing labeling and branding requirements for seafood are dated and confusing,” Blake added. “The economic incentive for misbranding also compromises the local commercial fishing industry that works hard to bring quality, high-value seafood to market. My bill will update, clarify, correct and strengthen our current laws to make them more enforceable and better protect consumers and the fishing industry.”