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Fish Fraud and Kashrus

by Arlene J. Mathes-Scharf

Copyright © 2011 by Arlene J. Mathes-Scharf

The “newest” consumer fraud story in the news is fish fraud. Actually it is an old story that resurfaces at regular intervals because unfortunately little is being done about it. Recently articles in the Boston Globe on 10/24/11, and on 10/25/11 and in the Consumer Report December 2011 edition highlighted the problem as if it is something new. A seminar at the Boston Fish Show in 2007 also discussed this problem after using DNA analysis to analyze fish to detect fraud.

The Boston Glove found that nearly half of the 183 fish samples that they collected at restaurants and supermarkets were not the species that they were told that they purchased. Consumer Reports found that one fifth of the 190 pieces of fish were incompletely labeled or misidentified by employees. In at least some of these cases, Vietnamese Catfish (a non-kosher fish) was substituted for other white fleshed fish, including some that would be kosher.

A talk that I attended at the Boston Fish show in 2009 pointed out that: “Over a nine year period, 1988 to 1997 routine examinations of seafood products by the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory found that 37% of fish and 17% of other seafood (shellfish, edible seaweed, etc.) were mislabeled.”

This is not a new problem for the kosher consumer. It is very difficult if not impossible to tell what species is a white fillet of fish is once the skin has been removed as people don't yet have portable instant DNA fish analyzers. The rabbis came up with a simple solution, to leave some skin on the fish, so one can tell what species it is, and whether it is kosher. At one seminar when I suggested this to an official who handles fish fraud he thought that this would be an easy way to fight the fraud. Unfortunately, the consumer seeing a piece of skin on the fish would assume that it was not cleaned properly, and the automatic skinning equipment does not leave any skin on the fish. That same official mentioned to me that there are more rabbis inspecting more products overseas than there are FDA inspectors inspecting products.

The investigative reports on fish fraud demonstrate the requirement for kosher consumers to either purchase products with certification, or products with skin on that can be identified as to being from a kosher fish.

More information about kosher fish can be found at www.kashrut.com/consumer/fish/.

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Arlene J. Mathes-Scharf  
Food Scientist - Kosher Food Specialist
Scharf Associates
P.O. Box 50
Sharon, MA 02067