Russian Fish Called ‘Alaska Pollock’: OK By FDA

Photo: NOAA
Photo: NOAA

If you’re in a supermarket and see a product labeled “Alaska Pollock,” it could well be Russian-caught pollock. And the FDA considers that perfectly legal. U.S. senators Lisa Murkowski, and Maria Cantwell of Washington, are urging the Food and Drug Administration to change that practice.

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At a Senate hearing yesterday on seafood issues, Cantwell had a simple question for an FDA witness: “Do you agree that the term ‘Alaska pollock’ would give consumers the impression that the product is from Alaska?”

Steven Solomon, the FDA’s deputy associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, didn’t answer directly.

But on the FDA’s official “seafood list,” the acceptable market name for the fish is either “pollock” or “Alaska pollock.” Same thing, says the FDA.

Cantwell says the policy allows Russian fish to masquerade as Alaskan, but she says the Russian fleet has “labor issues.” Cantwell cited the sinking last month of a Russian pollock boat that killed at least 65 crew members.

“These lives are being lost because of lack of training and survival skills,” she said, “and then consumers are seeing a product that’s labeled Alaska and it’s not really Alaskan pollock.”

The Bering Sea pollock fishery is one of the world’s most valuable, and it’s dominated by companies based in Cantwell’s state.

Jim Gilmore, of the Seattle-based At-Sea Processors Association, says Russian pollock is usually processed in China then re-frozen before it’s exported to the U.S. , and  when it arrives, it’s priced lower than real Alaskan pollock.

“Russian pollock right now that’s imported into the U.S. takes about 40 percent of our domestic market. So being able to call it ‘Alaska pollock’ when its Russian pollock has been quite a boon for them,” he said.

This market name issue is different from the controversies over the USDA’s “country of origin” rules. Under those rules, Gilmore says a Russian-caught fish can be labeled “product of the U.S.” if it’s substantially transformed in America – say, turned into a breaded fish stick.

“But if FDA would grant our request, they wouldn’t be allowed to call it ‘Alaska pollock,'” Gilmore said. “That, we think, is misleading.”

Gilmore says the extra irony is that Russia last year banned the import of all U.S. seafood, in retaliation for the international sanctions that followed Moscow’s move on Ukraine.

“So now the Russians can sell their pollock in the U.S. and call it Alaska pollock, and we can’t even sell pollock into the Russian market,” he said.

Solomon, the FDA witness at the hearing, told Sen. Cantwell he didn’t know when the agency would decide whether to remove “Alaska” from the fish name. The request was made last fall.