Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Justice (Justice Department) announced that Alphin Brothers Inc., a North Carolina-based seafood processor and wholesale distributor, was sentenced in federal court for falsely labeling imported shrimp.
As part of a plea agreement reach on February 10, 2015, the company pleaded guilty to one felony count of making or submitting false records in violation of the Lacey Act. Yesterday, a federal court sentenced Alphin Brothers Inc. to pay a criminal fine of $100,000, to forfeit 21,450 pounds of shrimp, and to serve three years probation, with a special condition requiring the company to implement a training program to educate its employees on federal labeling requirements.
The case was investigated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Office of Law Enforcement, with assistance from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. The case was prosecuted by the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of North Carolina.
The Justice Department’s press release reported that an employee of Alphin Brothers Inc. directed other employees of the company to falsely label approximately 25,000 pounds of farm-raised imported shrimp as wild-caught product of the United States, with the shrimp later sold to customers in Louisiana.
The Justice Department’s press release also provides a summary of federal law with respect to shrimp labeling and potential consequences of violations of that law:
Federal regulations require seafood retailers to provide customers with notice of the country of origin and the method of production, wild-caught or farm-raised, of shrimp and other shellfish. These regulations are known by the acronym COOL, which stands for “country of origin labeling.” The COOL regulations allow country of origin and method of production information to be provided in any format, as long as it is placed in a conspicuous location such that it will likely be read and understood by a customer under normal circumstances. Many shrimp processors and wholesale distributors, including Alphin Brothers Inc., print country of origin and/or method of production information directly on packaging, such as boxes, intended for retail sale.
Under the COOL regulations, shrimp may be labeled as “product of the United States” only if they were harvested and processed in the United States or by a United States-flagged vessel and have not undergone any substantial transformation outside the United States. Packing, repacking, thawing, freezing, cleaning, peeling, deveining, grading, cooking, or soaking shrimp in sodium tripolyphosphate solution does not constitute a substantial transformation under the COOL regulations.
The Lacey Act is a federal law making it illegal to make or submit any false record, account, or label for, or any false identification of, any fish or wildlife that has been or is intended to be imported, transported, purchased or received from any foreign country, or transported in interstate or foreign commerce. The maximum penalties for a felony violation of the Lacey Act include up to five years of imprisonment and $250,000 in fines for individual defendants and up to $500,000 in fines for corporate defendants.
Anyone with information pertaining to seafood fraud – whether shrimp mislabeling or otherwise – is encouraged to contact NOAA Law Enforcement’s working group on seafood fraud at firstname.lastname@example.org or at the toll-free hotline 1-800-853-1964.
Read the U.S. Department of Justice’s August 11, 2015 Press Release “North Carolina Seafood Processor and Distributor Sentenced for Mislabeling Shrimp”: