Alaskans fight for seafood label

Fishermen want canned, smoked salmon labeled by country

Posted: Friday, December 10, 2004

Want to comment

on the proposed rule?

The public comment period ends Jan. 3 Written comments to Country of Origin Labeling Program, Room 2092-S; Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), USDA; STOP 0249; 1400 Independence Ave., SW., Washington, D.C. 20250-0249; fax them to (202) 720-3499; or e-mail them to cool@usda.gov. State that your comments refer to Docket No. LS-03-04.

Comments may also be submitted electronically at www.regulations.gov. All comments received will be posted to the AMS Web site, www.ams.usda.gov/cool/.

Mark Vinsel usually buys Alaskan when he picks up canned pink salmon from Juneau grocery stores.

But one day last year, Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska, accidentally bought a 6-ounce Bumble Bee can labeled as a product of Thailand.

When he investigated the can's product code on Bumble Bee's Web site, Vinsel learned the salmon was from Russia and was canned in Mexico.

This month, Vinsel and other Alaskans are waging a last-ditch attempt to convince the federal government to require seafood retailers and suppliers to accurately label the country of origin and method of production for canned and smoked salmon.

Canned salmon accounts for 40 to 45 percent of the value and the volume of Alaska's annual seafood harvest, according to the McDowell Group consulting firm in Juneau.

Labeling those cans could boost Alaska's fishing industry because consumers are now enlightened about the differences between farmed fish and wild-caught salmon, said Jerry McCune, president of Cordova District Fishermen United.

About two years ago, one Cordova processor pulled up stakes after losing its canned pink contract with Costco and Sam's Club to a Chilean aquaculture venture, McCune said.

"It took a big chunk of our market away," McCune said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued an interim final rule on Sept. 30 requiring country-of-origin and method-of-production labeling for farm-raised and wild-caught fish and shellfish sold in U.S. markets beginning in April.

Though the rule is fiercely contested by some seafood industry organizations, it has received broad support from the public. More than 5,600 individuals commented on the initial version of the rule. Many lauded it for providing consumers informed choice about the origin of seafood and the labor force producing it.

But the rule was modified before its publication on the Federal Register to exclude canned, smoked and other processed fish - to the surprise of Vinsel, Alaska fishermen and some senior Alaska politicians. USDA could make further revisions before labeling begins, and will take public comments through Jan. 3.

"Let's get real ... canning or smoking may change a piece of salmon from raw to cooked, but it's still salmon, and consumers still deserve to know whether it is clean wild fish from Alaska or questionable farmed fish from elsewhere," said U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, in September, in reaction to the rule.

Some suspect the revision resulted from intense lobbying by big East Coast-based fishing organizations and the canned tuna industry.

"If people in the tuna industry don't want it ... we're really speaking for salmon," Vinsel said, adding that USDA could mend the rule to specifically exempt tuna, if necessary.

The Washington, D.C.-based National Fisheries Institute opposes the interim rule because it will raise the cost of imported seafood and could induce retaliatory measures by other countries against U.S. exports, according to the industry group's Web site.

USDA expects the rule will cause a price increase of less than two-tenths of a cent per pound for affected products. It also could cause exports to decrease and revenues for the entire U.S. fish industry to fall by $4 million, though not all industries will be equally affected.

For compliance, seafood suppliers and retailers must keep a one-year paper trail for their fish and shellfish. Seafood products must be marked with label, stamp, mark, placard, band, twist tie, pin tag, or other clear and visible sign either on the package, display, holding unit or bin.

Violations could result in civil penalties of up to $10,000.



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