Organic Consumers Association

Seafood to Get Country of Origin Labels

The fish you buy to carry a label this fall
You'll know its origin and whether it's wild or farmed

Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2004
San Francisco Chronicle


Seafood sold in U.S. supermarkets -- everything from wild salmon to bagged
frozen shrimp to Mrs. Paul's fish sticks -- will carry new labels this fall
stating where it was caught, where it was processed and whether it is wild
or farmed.

The new labeling requirement is the result of a little noticed provision of
a federal spending bill that recently passed Congress. It singles out the
seafood industry as the first to conform to a "country of origin" food
labeling law that the beef and pork industries have vigorously opposed.

Consumer and environmental groups are big advocates of labeling, saying it
gives consumers choices that they didn't have before. They cite recent
studies, for example, showing that farmed salmon is higher in PCBs and other
contaminants than wild salmon and may pose problems for the environment.

Some fishing industry groups also welcomed the requirement, saying it is a
way to promote U.S.-caught wild fish.

"A lot of people would like to buy American seafood products and support
American jobs and American fishermen. Our seafood products are the best in
the world in terms of quality and how they're handled,'' said Glen Spain, a
regional director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's
Associations in Seattle.

But most of the seafood industry criticizes the provision as onerous,
expensive and unnecessary. Fish will be categorized according to the
nationality of the boat that catches them, and keeping boatloads of fish
separate as they go through processing will be a logistical nightmare, they

"Seafood is going to be the guinea pig for the food industry,'' said Linda
Candler, spokeswoman for the National Fisheries Institute, the leading trade
group for the fish and seafood industry. Candler said that of all food
products, fish is the only wild-caught food and therefore the hardest to
categorize by nationality.

The 2002 farm bill included a "country of origin" labeling requirement for
all food commodities, but the requirement was never funded. The new omnibus
spending bill, passed Jan. 23, provided money only for the seafood labeling
program and delayed the regulations for other commodities until September

Lobbyists say the mandatory labeling provision for fish got through because
of Sen. Ted Stevens, the powerful Republican from Alaska who chairs the
Appropriations Committee. Stevens supported the labeling as a way to promote
his state's wild fish industry.

Commercial fishermen caught more than 99 percent of the salmon consumed
worldwide in 1980, according to a Stanford University study. Today salmon
farms supply about 40 percent of the salmon sold.

Beef and pork were left out of the mandatory labeling program as a result of
heavy lobbying by trade groups. But in the wake of concerns over "mad cow
disease'' and pesticide residues on produce, some consumer groups say it's
only a matter of time before other U.S. industries will be pressured to join
other nations in labeling.

"There's no justification for keeping the public in the dark about where the
rest of their food comes from,'' said Jonathan Kaplan, a spokesman for the
Natural Resources Defense Council. "A label gives consumers an opportunity
to buy locally grown foods.''

Beef, pork and produce lobbyists won exemptions to the labeling law earlier
this month with arguments that they lacked the infrastructure to make it

"Fish producers didn't share the same concern (over the labeling law), that
ranchers did,'' said Bryan Dierlam, director of legislative affairs for the
National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "Ranchers stepped out and said there
ought to be a better way. They were joined by pork producers. Many fruit and
vegetable producers spoke out as well,'' Dierlam said.

Some in the beef industry thought labeling would help assuage consumer fears
over BSE, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, because the United States has
improved practices over the last years.

But his influential group supported the delay until 2006, arguing that the
law doesn't give the Agricultural Department enough flexibility in writing

"The law declares that you affirmatively identify the origin on each piece
of meat. The infrastructure of our industry does not exist to do that. Our
hope is we can work with Congress and come up with a more workable
approach,'' Dierlam said. "Absolutely, we'll be watching to see what happens
with seafood.''
The law

Provisions of the seafood labeling law:

-- The term "wild'' fish means naturally born or hatchery-raised fish and
shellfish harvested in the wild, including a fillet, steak, nugget and any
other flesh from wild fish or shellfish.

To bear the United States "country of origin" label, wild fish and shellfish
must be caught in U.S. waters or by a U.S.-flagged vessel and processed in
the United States or aboard a U.S.-flagged vessel. If the fish is processed
elsewhere, the country also must be put on the label.

-- The term "farm-raised'' means fillets, steaks, nuggets and any other
flesh from a farm-raised fish or shellfish.

To carry the U.S. country of origin label, farmed fish and shellfish must be
derived exclusively from fish or shellfish hatched, raised and processed in
the United States.

-- Food markets that carry a full range of grocery products are subject to
the law. Specialty fish markets and butcher stores are exempt. The labeling
requirement doesn't pertain to fish sold in restaurants.

Also exempt are fish and shellfish that have been substantially altered in
processing. Pollack in fish sticks and nuggets must be labeled; but pollack
made into "surimi,'' a paste, need not.

If the seafood is mixed, such as bagged shrimp, the countries of origin
would be listed alphabetically.

-- The information must be conveyed by a label, stamp, mark, placard or
other clear and visible sign on the fish or on the package, or displayed at
the final point of sale to consumers.

Violators may be fined a maximum of $10,000 for each violation.

E-mail Jane Kay at

©2004 San Francisco Chronicle

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