One of the U.S.’s biggest and most trusted sustainable seafood suppliers Sea to Table has been accused of falsely advertising and mislabeling its fish. An extensive investigation by the Associated Press found that the New York-based seafood distributor has been marketing seafood as “local“ and “wild caught“ when some of its seafood was actually farmed or illegally caught out of season. In some cases, Sea to Table was sourcing from foreign suppliers known for appalling labor abuses and the poaching of sharks, whales, and dolphins.
In order to trace the fish fraud, the AP staked out fish markets, followed delivery trucks, and conducted interviews with fishermen around the world. In many instances, reporters found that customers received seafood orders with receipts listing boats fishing in local U.S. harbors. However, the boats hadn’t fished in the locations where the fish were purportedly caught in several years.
One Indonesian fisherman named Sulistyo described the horrible conditions he endured working 22-hour days on a boat associated with the Sea to Table supply chain. “We were treated like slaves,” he says, claiming he was paid $1.50 a day and not given enough food and water. His story, and others, mirror a 2015 report by the AP on slavery in the fishing industry, in which crew members on similar ships docking in Trinidad recounted beatings and forced labor. Workers claimed that some of these migrant workers died and were stored in the fish freezers while the boats continued fishing.
Sea to Table owner Sean Dimin told the AP the company was taking the allegations “extremely seriously.” He denied mislabeling seafood and misrepresenting products. When asked about farmed shellfish, Dimin characterized it as “a very small part of our business, but it’s something that we’re open and clear about.” However, shortly after the AP initially inquired for its story, Dimin changed his mind and said he would halt the sale of farmed seafood altogether. He also suspended partnerships with two suppliers associated with the human rights and environmental abuses while Sea to Table performs an audit.
In a statement on the company’s website today responding to the AP report, Dimin placed blame on Sea to Table’s suppliers:
The idea that we could be associated — even very loosely — with an organization that engages in poor labor practices is outright horrifying to us. We work every day to improve the seafood industry’s historically questionable practices. One such way is to source 100% domestic seafood. We would never knowingly purchase fish that doesn’t conform to our exacting standards.
We are unwavering in our commitment to sourcing sustainable, U.S. wild-caught seafood and making it easily accessible to customers across the nation. Sea to Table remains committed to making sure our suppliers are held to the highest level of transparency. There is still work to be done as we continue to be an agent of positive change in the historically opaque seafood industry.
Seafood is notoriously difficult to trace back to its source. One 2016 study by seafood watchdog group Oceana found that a full 20 percent of 25,000 seafood samples collected worldwide were mislabeled. If the labels aren’t correct, that makes it particularly difficult for restaurants, chefs, and consumers that are trying to make environmentally friendly seafood purchases. And it explains why they’d turn to a company like Sea to Table to provide them with a reliable source of quality, sustainably caught seafood — often at a premium.
Over the years, Sea to Table had partnered with sustainable seafood groups like Monterey Bay Aquarium and Marine Stewardship Council and had been highlighted in a variety of publications such as GQ, the New York Times, and Bon Appetit. Sea to Table even managed to dupe Larry Olmsted, author of a definitive book on food fraud, Real Food, Fake Food. Chef Rick Bayless was a customer of Sea to Table and told the AP he was saddened to learn that the stories of working with fishermen in small towns along the U.S. coastline weren’t true. “This throws quite a wrench in all of that,” he says.
• AP Investigation: Sustainable Seafood Dealer Sold Fishy Tale [AP]
• Letter From Our Founder On Recent Press Story [Sea to Table]
• Seafood Fraud Is Literally Everywhere [E]
• Fighting Slave Labor in the Food Supply Chain [E]
• Why the Laws Policing Menu Fraud Don’t Really Work [E]