BELLEVUE FISH BROKER PLEADS GUILTY TO FALSELY LABELING FISH PRODUCT
Defendant will have to Publish Nationwide Apology as Part of Plea Agreement
KEVIN D. STEELE, 47, of Bellevue, Washington pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Seattle today to a felony charge of False Labeling of a Fish Product, in violation of the Lacy Act, and to a misdemeanor Introducing Misbranded Food into Interstate Commerce. STEELE operates a seafood brokerage business, Mallard Cove Resources. As part of his plea agreement, STEELE must take out quarter page ads in widely circulated seafood industry magazines in which he describes his criminal conduct and apologizes for his actions.
According to the plea agreement signed today, STEELE was told by an inspector with the U.S. Department of Commerce Seafood Inspection Program that fish known as turbot or Greenland halibut could not be labeled or marketed as halibut. Despite that knowledge, between July 2003 and mid-2006, STEELE purchased more than 136,000 pounds of a fish commonly known as Greenland halibut or Greenland turbot from a fish wholesaler in Rhode Island. The fish was labeled as being Turbot from China. The boxes that were shipped to STEELE carried the label “Product of China.” STEELE had the fish shipped to a cold storage facility, where he directed that the fish be repackaged and labeled “Halibut Portions” or “Halibut Pieces,” and he directed that the boxes be labeled “Product of USA.” Federal regulations prohibit the use of the label “Halibut” on fish that is in fact turbot.
STEELE sold more than 131,000 pounds of falsely labeled fish to retail stores and restaurants primarily in Utah and Texas. In all he placed at least 33 falsely labeled shipments into U.S. Commerce.
“NOAA considers false labeling cases to constitute serious criminal conduct that will be vigorously investigated,” said Vicki Nomura, Special Agent in Charge NOAA Office of Law Enforcement/Northwest Region. “Those involved in the seafood industry are obligated to accurately identify the products they sell to avoid defrauding customers and insure consumers confidence in the marketplace.”
In addition to the nationwide ads, STEELE must make a community service payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation equal to the amount he profited by selling the cheaper fish at a higher price. U.S. District Judge John C. Coughenour will determine how much the payment will be at sentencing on February 13, 2009. The money will be used to fund projects for species and habitat conservation, protection, restoration and management projects to benefit fish resources and the habitats on which they depend.
The Lacy Act violation is punishable by up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Introducing Misbranded food is punishable by up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine.
The case was investigated by the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
The case is being prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorney Jim Oesterle who leads the U.S. Attorney’s Office working group on Environmental Crimes.
For additional information please contact Emily Langlie, Public Affairs Officer for the United States Attorney’s Office at (206) 553-4110.