Risks Faced by Distributors for Seafood Species Mislabeling

Tort risk may also be a substantial liability for distributors. Many consumers have allergies to certain species of seafood. These consumers specifically rely on the representations of the menu to make sure they do not purchase species of fish to which they have allergies. If a consumer purchases a mislabeled fish (relying on the label) and is injured, the tort liability to the distributor could be substantial.

But, allergic reactions resulting directly from species mislabeling are not the only risks to consumers. Food allergies to fish, unlike most allergies, often begin in adulthood. The greatest risk from fish allergies is anaphylaxis, which can cause life-threatening breathing, cardiac, and gastrointestinal symptoms. Pollock, salmon, cod, tuna, snapper, eel, tilapia and shellfish are among the seafood that commonly elicit fish allergies. Consumers who know they have allergies to certain fish will purchase a different species of fish for the express purpose of avoiding the allergic reaction. Substitution of species causing a life-threatening reaction for the fish the consumer believed they were purchasing could, thus, be very dangerous to consumers. These customers are the most likely to investigate further the source of the mislabeled product, whether through a consumer hotline to local food inspectors or possibly through the courts if they are seriously injured. Either of these possibilities creates a substantial possibility of media coverage, in addition to the possibility of significant fines or court settlements.

Mislabeled fish may result in exposing consumers to certain fish parasites, such as Anisakis simplex. Certain fish species, as a result of their habitat, are more likely to contain this parasite than others. This parasite can cause severe allergic reactions including anaphylactic shock. Because this parasite can elicit an allergic reaction even if cooked, offering a warning label along with the misbranded seafood will not prevent injury (or liability).

Additionally, consumers may react to the antibiotics used in aquaculture. Often, farm-raised fish are substituted for fresh-caught fish from countries where certain antibiotics, banned in the US, are used to grow the fish. Many consumers have allergies to these antibiotics. Thus, a consumer relying on the claim that a fish is a "wild-caught" fish, whereas the fish is actually a different species raised on a farm in Asia, could lead to the consumer being injured or even killed. Distributors may face tort liability in the event a consumer is harmed by an allergic reaction to these antibiotics.


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