NOAA investigates seafood mislabelling

06 Feb 2011
Boxes of frozen fillets of catfish of the genus Pangasius that were imported into the United States from Vietnam falsely labelled as sole to avoid anti-dumping duties. These were seized upon entry into the United States, some by NOAA Office of Law Enforcement and some by Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Credit: NOAA

Boxes of frozen fillets of catfish of the genus Pangasius that were imported into the United States from Vietnam falsely labelled as sole to avoid anti-dumping duties. These were seized upon entry into the United States, some by NOAA Office of Law Enforcement and some by Department of Homeland Security's Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Credit: NOAA

Seafood consumers and the law-abiding fishermen who catch that seafood gained a victory last week when a NOAA investigation into conspiracy, misbranding and smuggling resulted in two guilty pleas in federal court.

This case is the latest of three Lacey Act investigations in NOAA Office of Law Enforcement’s southeast division that resulted in guilty pleas in January.

Karen L. Blyth of Paradise Valley, Ariz., and David H.M. Phelps of Scottsdale, Ariz., pleaded guilty 24 Janary in Mobile, Ala., to 13 felony offenses for their roles in purchasing and then re-selling farm-raised Asian catfish and Lake Victoria perch falsely labelled as grouper, sole or snapper; selling foreign farm-raised shrimp falsely labelled as US wild caught shrimp and selling shrimp that falsely claimed to be larger and more expensive than they actually were; and for buying fish they knew had been illegally imported into the United States. Some of the fish tested positive for malachite green and Enrofloxin, both of which are considered health hazards and banned from US food products.

The Lacey Act makes it unlawful for a person to falsely identify any fish that has been, or is intended to be, imported, sold, purchased or received from any foreign country or transported in interstate or foreign commerce.

The defendants, who were co-owners of Consolidated Seafood Enterprises Inc., in Phoenix and Reel Fish and Seafood Inc., in Pensacola, Fla., pleaded guilty to one conspiracy count, nine violations of the Lacey Act, two counts of receiving smuggled goods and one misbranding count. A third defendant charged in the case, John J. Popa, of Lisbon, Conn., pleaded guilty to similar offenses in August. He managed and co-owned Reel Fish with Blyth and Phelps.

Both businesses are now closed.

Popa’s sentencing is set for 22 February, while Blyth’s and Phelps’ are set for 4 May. The maximum penalty for each violation of the Lacey Act includes up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, while the maximum penalty for each misbranding count includes to up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

“We will continue to investigate all false labelling and substitution of this country’s fish and seafood, and work to protect fisheries in the Southeast region and the American consumer, from being harmed by this kind of criminal activity,” said Hal Robbins, special agent in charge of NOAA Office of Law Enforcement’s southeast division.

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