SAN FRANCISCO — Federal authorities have seized more than half a million pounds of frozen Japanese salmon as evidence in an alleged scam in which the fish were shipped to the United States, repackaged and returned to Japan labeled as an expensive American import.
"If it says 'Made in the U.S.A.' on the label, you can get a lot more money for (salmon) in Japan," said William T. McGivern, chief assistant U.S. attorney in San Francisco. "It's the old status thing. Some people will pay more for a bottle of French wine than for domestic of the same quality."
Authorities said the alleged scheme operated out of a nondescript two-room office in San Bruno but involved cold-storage warehouses, fish handlers and shipping companies all along the West Coast, from Riverside to Vancouver, Canada.
1.1 Million Pounds Documented
Federal agents have documented that at least 1.1 million pounds of frozen salmon in nine lots were imported and relabeled between August, 1986, and January, 1987, apparently in violation of U.S. and Japanese laws. Only about half that amount was seized; the rest had already been sent back to Japan. And authorities say even more may have been involved.
The case is known, for now, as United States of America vs. 208,048 Pounds of Salmon, More or Less.
Importer-exporter Ken Takayama, a Japanese citizen, is quoted in the affidavit as telling two National Marine Fisheries Service agents that some of the salmon he handled may not have been the top-quality product its lofty tag may have suggested.
Takayama, who runs Wescon International Trading Co., was quoted as saying that some of the salmon may have been 2 or 3 years old, and he conceded that "2-year-old salmon is worthless." A San Francisco seafood dealer told The Times that frozen salmon is usually kept a maximum of six months.
Domestic salmon sells in Japan for about $1.50 a pound, McGivern said. As an American import, however, the same fish can fetch up to $5 a pound, he said.
According to the affidavit, the operation worked like this:
Refrigerated containers of frozen Japanese salmon were ordered by companies controlled by Takayama in San Bruno, Honolulu and San Francisco.
Upon arriving in Oakland, the fish were trucked to a cold storage warehouse in Bellingham, Wash., where they were repackaged in boxes declaring them to be "Product of U.S.A." The fish were then shipped back to Japan through Vancouver.
No charges have been filed in the case, McGivern said, but the investigation is continuing.