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 was often wrongly included as part of the labeled weight of seafood. In some instances, the investigation 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 they are able to find.
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, they first issue a warning letter and later take "stronger action" if necessary. Herndon said the FDA has issued numerous warning letters on the seafood issue.
The investigation found many cases across the country which seafood shoppers pay for large amounts of ice that are not supposed to be included in the price, according to a group of industry and government officials that conducted inspections in 17 states. The culprit is the coating of ice applied to frozen seafood to preserve quality during storage and distribution.
The ice was wrongly included as part of the labeled weight of seafood, according to the National Conference on Weights and Measures, which conducted the investigation. In some instances, the investigation found, ice accounted for up to 40 percent of the product's weight.
"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 weights and measures 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 to the seafood.
More than 21,000 packages of seafood were removed from store shelves and distribution centers during the four-week investigation, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, which organized the investigation. The probe found a "significant market share" of packers were not following the law, either knowingly or because they didn't realize that they weren't supposed to include the weight of the ice glazing.
Onwiler said seafood packers found in violation of packaging and labeling laws face a range of penalties, depending on the state, that could include fines and court action. In some cases, violations were found at grocery stores that pack their own seafood.
The investigation organizer -- Judy Cardin, weights and measures chief for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection -- said investigators in multiple states were trained together and used a process that involved spraying the ice off the seafood in a specific manner and then comparing the weight of the seafood to what was written on the package.
"We looked at scallops, shrimp, fish fillets, crabmeat, lobster -- just about any seafood you can imagine," she said.
The investigation took place in 17 states:
SOURCE: National Conference on Weights and Measures
(Alejandra Cancino of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.)
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