CHICAGO — When you walk into your neighborhood fish market or grocery store, the display case is filled with "fresh" swordfish, "fresh" salmon, "fresh" shrimp, "fresh" petrale sole.
But then you take your catch home and find that your "fresh" filet has a frozen center. Or your fork finds mush instead of firm flesh.
How long has your dinner been away from the ocean? And what has happened to it since it left the waves behind?
Consumer groups contend that there is little regulation of the seafood industry and that shoppers should beware of what they buy and how it is sold.
"Under current law, consumers can be misled as to fish products' freshness, its quality and which species it is meant to be," said Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a consumer group based in Washington. "There are inadequate standards for labeling."
The Food and Drug Administration is charged with ensuring that food labeling is not false or misleading, but the agency has no definition of "fresh," no standards or criteria for using the term to sell food.
"Fresh is a meaningless term as it's used in supermarkets today," said Nancy H. Hasselback, publisher of Seafood Business magazine. "There are deceptive practices everywhere, and some people label seafood fresh when they mean previously frozen."
Consumers aren't the only ones confused about the fish they find. The seafood industry itself is at times unclear on the concept of freshness.
"Do you know or have you ever thought about how much of what we call 'fresh seafood sales' is really 'previously frozen'?" Russ Byerly, vice president of retail merchandising for the New England Shrimp Co., asked as he addressed retailers Tuesday at the Food Marketing Institute's annual supermarket convention in Chicago.
"Have we misused the word 'fresh' " to cover all fish sold in special seafood sections of supermarkets, he asked. "I think we have."
What consumers consider "fresh" fish is often described by the seafood industry in Byerly's terminology: "fresh never frozen." But even if a consumer were to buy fish so labeled, there is no assurance that it has seen the ocean in recent days.
"The standard rule of thumb is that fish caught 10 days ago is fresh," Hasselback said. And that's one reason why frozen seafood can be better than fresh, she said.
Fresh-never-frozen seafood accounts for less than half of today's fresh seafood sales, Byerly told convention-goers. Orange roughy, snow crab, king crab and imported red snapper are almost always delivered frozen to the retailer.
And shrimp, which account for about 40% of all seafood sales, are rarely sold fresh, he said.
Freshness is more than just a truth-in-labeling issue, Haas said. It's a food safety issue, too. For what begins as a question of language becomes a question of food handling.
Consumers need to know if the fish they buy has been frozen and thawed out because foods should not be frozen twice and then eaten.
"You should not refreeze anything--seafood, meat or poultry," said Tony Rugnetta, sales executive for Met Fisheries Inc. "If you do, you're looking for problems. You lose all kinds of taste, get an upset stomach, and food poisoning could result."
Met Fisheries, a seafood packer and processor based in New Bedford, Mass., sells fresh and frozen seafood to distributors, supermarkets and food service businesses throughout the United States.
The company's specialty is flying fish to its destination within 24 hours of catching it. But it also sells a line of frozen filets.
"Markets should say when a fish is previously frozen, and we suggest they do," Rugnetta said. "A&P markets it as previously frozen along with recipes. (Frozen fish) is consistent in quality, price and availability."
At Santa Monica Seafood Co., a 50-year-old firm on Colorado Boulevard, fresh fish has been labeled for the past six or seven years with the words "fresh fish not frozen."
"I don't think too many people would think fondly of buying fish they've been told is fresh and finding out it'd been frozen at one time," said Vincent Cigliano, director of operations.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has oversight responsibility for meat and poultry. Seafood, however, falls under the jurisdiction of the FDA, which is authorized to inspect food processors and fisheries for safety, cleanliness, proper handling and labeling, said Cynthia Leggett, FDA spokeswoman. In addition, the Department of Commerce oversees a voluntary inspection program for fish processors.
"But we don't have the staff to inspect," Leggett said. "We have 510 investigators in the United States, and there are 60,000 food firms."
As a result, the FDA will visit a fish processing plant once every four years or so. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture inspects meat and poultry plants daily with a staff of 10,000, Leggett said.
Leaving labeling and inspection up to businesses and current FDA procedures is not enough, Haas said. Tougher legislation is necessary.