Politics & Government

SC considers seafood origins truth-in-advertising bill

Seafood availability chart at bottom of story outlines what is available and when in SE waters.

If those tasty crustaceans smothered by grits in South Carolina restaurants are from Florida, the restaurant owner would be breaking the law by calling them “local” shrimp, under a change working its way through the Legislature.

The same goes for “local” grouper in the display case at the grocery store that’s really from Asia.

The new definition for local seafood would be added to the state’s food labeling regulations in a bill, H.3297, which has made it to the House floor. Even if the bill passes the House in the next two weeks, the Senate won’t consider it until 2014.

Violators would face a misdemeanor charge, but the emphasis is less on punishment than on making clearly illegal what local seafood industry leaders see as a deceptive practice. How pervasive a practice? It’s difficult to say.

“I know it’s a lot, but what is ‘a lot?’ ” said Frank Blum, executive director of the S.C. Seafood Alliance.

The state’s seafood industry’s revenue dropped to $24 million in 2004 from $48 million in 1995, a dip attributed mainly to foreign competition. The local drop came at a time when seafood consumption worldwide was growing.

“Foreign aquaculture grew like a weed,” Blum said. “It kept up with, and passed a little, what was needed for consumption.”

Changes in U.S. and state regulations that reduced local catch of some species also had an impact. State seafood revenue has inched up to about $27 million since 2004, Blum said.

Nearly 90 percent of seafood consumed in the U.S. is caught or raised in foreign waters, Blum said. It’s unlikely every grocery store, market or restaurant advertising local seafood is telling the truth.

“If you’re running a restaurant, the top restaurants are going to be truthful because they can charge a lot,” Blum said. “People will pay more because they want the best stuff.”

As for the places with cheap prices, they probably aren’t selling local products, Blum said. They might not be selling what they’re advertising at all.

A 2011 study by Clemson University’s Peter Marko using DNA samples found 15 percent of 33 fish labeled in stores as Chilean sea bass either were a different variety of sea bass or were a different species of fish. A 2004 study by Marko found 77 percent of fillets advertised as red snapper weren’t.

At the Blue Marlin Restaurant in Columbia, executive chef and general manager Brian Dukes endeavors to use local seafood, and all other foods, as often as possible.

“You get it from a reputable source, somebody you can trust who’s done right by you in the past,” Dukes said. “It’s good to use things that are local. The quality of the product is better because it’s fresher.”

Dukes deals with small fishing operations as well as large regional food purveyors. The big companies in recent years have begun making it clear on their price lists where seafood originates, he said.

Dukes likes to spend his money with South Carolina providers, not just because their product is fresher but also because it’s good for the state’s economy. But he gets most of his shrimp from the Gulf of Mexico.

“There’s not enough shrimp produced in the state of South Carolina to support the demand,” Dukes said.

In that case, Blue Marlin won’t be allowed to call its shrimp “local.” The bill defines “local seafood” as coming from South Carolina, North Carolina or Georgia. Bill sponsor Rep. Stephen Goldfinch, R-Georgetown, said that allows boat operators to not worry about whether they’ve crossed into neighboring state’s waters.

Whit McMillan, director of education at the S.C. Aquarium, doesn’t think deceptive seafood advertising is all that common. Many of the top restaurants in the state have joined the Sustainable Seafood Initiative, coordinated by the Aquarium to ensure local fisheries remain healthy.

“It’s important to support local fisheries, to support an industry that means a lot to South Carolina,” McMillan said. “The partners we work with do their dead level best to make sure they are serving local seafood.”

Monthly seafood availability chart by thestate