Review: Consumers often overcharged for seafood

CHICAGO — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Tuesday that it is reviewing the results of a multi-state investigation that found that shoppers have been paying for large amounts of ice that are not supposed to be included in the price of frozen seafood.

The investigation — conducted by weights and measures inspectors in 17 states — found that a coating of ice applied to frozen seafood to preserve quality during storage and distribution often was wrongly included as part of the labeled weight of seafood. In some cases, the review found ice accounted for up to 40 percent of the product's weight.

"We're reviewing their results and determining whether FDA should take any action and if so, what actions should we take," said Michael Herndon, spokesman for the FDA.

Herndon said the FDA could direct one of its district offices to target a particular firm or consider import sampling of a particular commodity or country based on the trends found.

All imports subject to FDA regulation are screened before entry into the country, Herndon said, and a new risk-based computerized system will enable investigators to better target food coming into the country that may be "adulterated, economically, or otherwise."

If the FDA determines that economic fraud is taking place, he said, it first issues a warning letter and later takes "stronger action" if necessary. Herndon said the FDA has issued numerous warning letters on the seafood issue.

The National Conference on Weights and Measures conducted the review. "You're paying up to $23 a pound, according to the products that were tested by these states, and you shouldn't be paying for water," said Don Onwiler, executive director of the group, a nonprofit association of officials, federal agencies, manufacturers, retailers and consumers.

The investigation was prompted by the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry association, over concerns about improper labeling used by some packaging companies.

Coating seafood in ice is a common and legal practice. What isn't legal, Onwiler said, is to include ice in the weight of the seafood. In some cases, investigators found seafood packers were also adding a thicker coat of ice than was necessary in order to add weight.

More than 21,000 packages of seafood were removed from store shelves and distribution centers during the four-week review, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, which organized the investigation.

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