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Veteran seafood expert John Sackton laid quite a heavy fish story on us, which I’m in turn compelled to share. The murky waters swirling beneath the surface of Sackton's tale pertains to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the millions of pounds of fish caught by Russian fishermen, on Russian vessels and in Russian waters each year which are labeled and sold in the U.S. as "Alaska pollock."
It stands to reason, and surveys further show, that consumers believe that the fish must be from the Alaska. But all is not as it seems, and there's something fishy going on here.
To be sure, American consumers are increasingly interested in where their fish comes from and how it is labeled. A recent study by the FDA found 85 percent of seafood is correctly labeled, with the approved FDA market name (Snapper and Grouper were the major exceptions). But as Sackton rightly asks: "What if the approved FDA market name itself is misleading and promotes confusion? That is exactly what is happening with Alaska Pollock? Chinese processors of Russian pollock have been able to co-opt Alaska’s stellar reputation for quality fish by selling Russian fish that is less sustainably caught and frozen, defrosted, then frozen again and calling it Alaska pollock. Why? Because the FDA currently allows Russian pollock to be sold under the FDA approved market name Alaska Pollock," explains Sackton, publisher of SeafoodNews.
In his view, the FDA loophole "is especially egregious in light of Russia’s recent ban on U.S. seafood," which stipulates that Alaskan producers can no longer sell their fish in Russia.
In a bid to stem the tide, a coalition of Alaska fisheries, aptly named Genuine Alaska Pollock Producers (GAPP) – with the support of 15 U.S. congressmen and senators – recently filed a formal request with the FDA for what Sackton describes as "a simple and just solution: change the acceptable market name of 'Alaska pollock' to simply 'pollock,'" which he says would be consistent with FDA's prevailing practice of establishing market names for fish species while attempting to avoid a geographic designation wherever possible.
"The FDA should honor these requests and end this deceptive practice," maintains Sackton, who adds, "This is not a small problem. Alaska pollock is one of the most widely consumed fish in the U.S. In 2012, it was the fifth most consumed fish, behind shrimp, tuna, salmon and tilapia, and accounted for 11 percent of all U.S. fresh and frozen fish consumption. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast food restaurants use pollock for their fish sandwiches. Pollock is also sold at retail by familiar companies such as High Liner, Gorton’s, Mrs. Paul’s and other major brands."
In all cases, "The labels, regulated by the FDA, say 'Alaska pollock,'" says Sackton, citing studies conducted by GAPP which show that "consumers overwhelmingly assume this means that the pollock was from Alaska. However, between roughly 30-45 percent of the pollock consumed in the U.S. in a given year is imported from Russia."
Upholding Sustainable Standards
In addition, he adds, "The Alaska fishery and the Russian fishery are held to very different standards. The Alaska pollock fishery has been recognized not only as the largest food fishery in the U.S., but as one of the most sustainable fisheries on the planet as a result of a management system used in Alaska and throughout the U.S., where decades of precautionary, science-based limits have created stable and sustainable fisheries."
In addition, Sackton applauds the Alaskan model for its strict regulations for bycatch (which refers to a fish or other marine species that is caught unintentionally while catching certain target species and target sizes of fish, crustaceans, etc.); strong avoidance measures for salmon and halibut; and a robust reporting system that monitors all prohibited species bycatch. "As a result, the pollock fishery in Alaska has one of the lowest rates of bycatch of any fishery in the world, and what bycatch does occur is fully documented, reported and monitored."
In contrast, Sackton says, "The Russian fishery has suffered from boom and bust, with stocks collapsing due to heavy overfishing and a significant illegal fishing component, and then rebounding somewhat in recent years. The Russian fishery has virtually no bycatch controls. Alaska also has a huge range of protected marine areas; it has legally binding laws on essential fish habitat, and it has full, 100 percent observer coverage in the pollock fishery, none of which exists in Russia."
However, pressure from European buyers, which Sackton says "desperately wanted a Russian source of cheap but 'certified sustainable' pollock, the Russian 'Alaska' pollock fishery received full certification last year from a European group called the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC)." Sackton decries the certification – which was granted despite widely documented differences in conservation efforts between the Alaskan and Russian fisheries – as "a direct blow to Alaskan producers, which had been approached by the MSC to obtain certification as a model fishery."
"At the time," he continues, "it appeared to be in Alaska’s interests, as it served to differentiate a truly world-class fishery in Alaska from one in Russia that suffered from rampant problems. But the MSC needs have diverged from those of the top fisheries producers. As the MSC came under pressure from buyers and its own need to generate revenue, it has sought to bring more marginal fisheries with lower conservation values into its certification system."
'Consumers Have a Right to Know'
I fully concur with Sackton's stance that, "Consumers have a right to know these things," which is as compelling a reason as any for why action by the FDA on this issue is vital.
There are also additional compelling reasons why action is necessary, per Sackton, including the truth in advertising imperative and an often significant quality difference as well. "The vast majority of Russian-caught 'Alaska' pollock," explains Sackton, "is frozen and sent to China for defrosting and further processing, which includes soaking the fish in chemicals and adding fillers and water to the final product. These steps reduce the cost of the product that hits American shelves, but also damages the expectations of consumers seeking the genuine Alaskan article."
For all these reasons, I cast my line alongside Sackton, who makes a clear and compelling case to cut bait with pollock labeling transparency. "It is time for the FDA to act on the GAPP petition. By changing the market name to simply pollock, as is done with virtually all other fish species where multiple individual species have a common market name, the geographic descriptor must then represent a true statement." By way of example, Sackton says New England producers of Atlantic pollock could market their product as Atlantic pollock, Alaskans could sell Alaska pollock and Russians could sell Russian pollock.
"Science, practice, consumer integrity and a level playing field for U.S. fisheries are all at stake. A favorable decision," Sackton sums, "should be made without delay."
Here's hoping the venerable fishing adage, "Good things come to those who bait," rings true.