Sparked by findings that more than half of all fish is wrongly labeled at restaurants and markets in Los Angeles County, a swift crackdown has been launched to ensure consumers are protected and get what they are paying for.
Moving quickly to address the public's alarm about the false labeling, County Supervisors Tuesday voted to direct the Department of Public Health to work with federal and state agencies to address the issue of in Los Angeles County.
“Consumers must have confidence that the fish they are buying at restaurants and grocery stores is safe and labeled correctly,” said Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich in a statement.
The Board of Supervisors approved studying the possible use of the Food and Drug Administration’s specialized laboratories for testing of local samples of imported fish by the L.A. County Department of Public Health.
Results of a study focusing on seafood sold at various locations in L.A. County was recently released to widespread concern. Conducted in May and December 2011 by Oceana, the non-profit organization found more than 50 percent of seafood was inaccurately labeled in the restaurants, sushi bars and grocery stores sampled.
“This crosses the bridge from being a consumer protection issue to an issue of health….This isn’t minor mislabeling—this is major,” said Angelo Bellomo, director of environmental health for Los Angeles County’s Department of Public Health. “It is important for us to find out where this happening, and finding out where the breakdown is also very important.”
Locations sampled by Oceana included eateries in Long Beach, Marina del Rey, El Segundo, Manhattan Beach, Torrance, and Palos Verdes. Red snapper and white tuna were the most commonly mislabeled fish.
“The Oceana study is a snapshot but now we have to build up that snapshot and see how we can implement enforcement methods to see how to approach this problem,” Bellomo said.
At this stage, the Health Department will be looking at identifying gaps in seafood inspection and will confer with the FDA to see how to best address those issues, he said. Currently, food and health code inspectors do not have the capability to identify fish species with tests. The Health Department will reach out to state and federal agencies to see how to better team up and utilize resources, such as laboratories, said Bellomo.
Terrance Powell, director of specialized surveillance and enforcement with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said that health officials will focus on several areas such as mislabeled packaged fish and truth in menu. Violations of both would fall under California’s Sherman Food, Drug and Cosmetic Law, he said.
Assuring properly labeled food and ingredients would fall under the responsibilities of county health inspectors, which may ultimately be testing fish in eateries to assure truth in menu. However, the FDA has jurisdiction as far as package labeling issues and there may need to be some tightening of those standards as well, Bellomo said.
“We are going to be doing to some research on this and within a couple [months] or a month, we will have a better sense on how to work with our federal partners to see what we can do,” Bellomo said.
As part of the research, a pilot program for health inspectors may be started in as early as 30 days, he said.