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Seafood Source reports that Stew Leonard’s has been hit with a lawsuit over seafood that it sold that was not what it said it was.

Last month, the New York State Attorney General’s office issued a report saying that seafood mislabeling is “rampant” across the state, and accused five chains - Food Bazaar, Foodtown, Stew Leonard’s, Uncle Giuseppe’s, and Western Beef - of mislabeling more than half their seafood.

According to the Seafood Source story, “Shelby Franklin, a New York consumer, is suing Norwalk, Connecticut-based Stew Leonard’s over its allegedly mislabeled wild sockeye salmon and red snapper.

“The class action complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York, alleges that Stew Leonard’s ‘routinely took advantage of consumers’ preferences for certain fish species and characteristics by labeling and passing off low-demand, less healthy, and less environmentally-friendly fish as more desirable, healthier, and more sustainable varieties of fish … In making the false, misleading, and deceptive representations and omissions described herein, defendant knew and intended that consumers would pay a premium for products labeled as red snapper and sockeye salmon over other, less desirable, fish products.”

In a prepared statement when the original AG report was issued, Stew Leonard Jr. said that “two years ago, Stew Leonard’s started importing what we believed to be red snapper. It had a red hue and it was snapper. Until today, my family and I had no idea that an imported snapper couldn’t be called a ‘red snapper,’ as only domestic snapper is permitted to be called ‘red snapper’ … We immediately changed our signage and our labels once we were alerted to this issue earlier today by the New York Attorney General’s Office. We have 25 different species of fish on our fish bars at Stew Leonard’s and this is the first time anything like this has ever happened.”

Stew Leonard’s has not commented on the lawsuit.
KC's View:
I’m assuming that in addition to changing the signs, Stew Leonard’s and the other companies also changed their seafood providers. Because to have kept the same providers - which were really responsible for the fraud - would’ve been unwise, to say the least.

In the end, retailers have to remember, customers always are going to hold them culpable when these kinds of things happen. There’s really no such thing as plausible deniability in these cases … as a shopper, I expect the retailer to know and to protect my interests. (For the record, I’ve bought plenty of seafood - especially a lot of salmon - from Stew’s over the years. I’m disappointed in the AG study, but it would never occur to me to sue anybody … and I won’t be joining any class action suit. That’s just not who I am.)

I would remind everyone what Mike Spindler, CEO of the Fulton Fish Market, told MNB back when the AG report was issued - that “the seafood industry is purposefully opaque, which is how companies with big time efforts around authenticity and sustainability (Kroger, Whole Foods) get  fooled.” That’s the reason that Fulton Fish Market defines itself as “an information Tech company that STARTS with the information.  Anything that is on our consumer site is EXACTLY what it purports to be.”

That’s critical. Food companies can’t just be food companies. They have to be information companies, and technology companies. That’s the price of doing business - transparency that represents the customer’s best interests.