When it comes to buying and eating seafood in Canada, what you get may not be what be what you think you see.
A new report by an ocean conservation advocacy group is sounding the alarm on seafood fraud in Canada, and how that impacts Canadian consumers, industries, wildlife, and the environment.
Oceana Canada released the results of a study today (August 28) which involved the DNA testing of almost 400 seafood samples from food businesses in 2017 and 2018. The results? Unfortunately, 44 percent of the sampled seafood products were found erroneously labelled.
The study examined 382 seafood samples from 177 retailers and restaurants in five Canadian cities: Victoria, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, and Halifax.
What they found was that 44 percent of those samples did not meet labelling requirements by Canadian Food Inspection Agency and 64 percent of food businesses (114 businesses, or 95 restaurants and 19 retailers) sold mislabelled fish.
Rates of misidentification were markedly higher at restaurants, with 52 percent of samples from restaurants improperly labelled compared to 22 percent at grocery stores and markets.
Also of concern, 30 percent of mislabelled samples were endangered, threatened, or vulnerable species of seafood.
While some of the mislabelling may be attempts at economic gain, others may be caused by human error.
Seafood fraud can involve replacing inexpensive, less desired, or available species for more expensive or less-abundant ones; substituting farmed fish for wild-caught fish, such as tilapia sold as snapper or farmed Atlantic salmon sold as wild Pacific salmon; or product adulteration, such as adding chemicals to preserve the product appearance or adding extra bread or water to claim a product weighs more than it actually does.
“A single fish can cross international borders and change hands multiple times before landing on your plate,” University of Guelph integrative biology associate professor Robert Hanner explained in an Oceana Canada news release. “A fish caught in Canada may be shipped to China to be gutted, to the U.S. to be breaded, then ultimately appear on shelves back in Canada, but be listed as an American product. With this complex supply chain, misidentification can happen at any stage.”
The report points out that seafood fraud can have far-reaching consequences, including affecting health, food safety, fishing industries and seafood businesses, environmental and economic sustainability, fisheries management, and at-risk regions or species, and can lead to problems such as overfishing or even human-rights violations, such as slavery or child labour due to illegal or black-market sales.
Out of the five cities, Vancouver had the lowest rate of mislabelling with 26 percent, or 22 out of 84 samples, incorrectly labelled (6 out of 23 retailers and 16 out of 61 restaurants). However, that's not necessarily good news. That amount is still one out of every four samples, with 59 percent of the substitutions having potential health implications.
In June, a UBC study in partnership with Oceana Canada found similar results. Out of 281 seafood products, 70 of them (or 25 percent) were mislabelled.
While only 15 samples were taken from Victoria, 67 percent of them were mislabelled (10 out of 15 samples).
Toronto had one of the highest rates, with 59 percent, or 57 out of 96 samples, found mislabelled.
From across Canada, 100 percent of three particular species were found to be mislabelled. All samples collected of snapper (44 samples), yellowtail (18 samples), and butterfish (10 samples) were found to be incorrectly labelled. Salmon had the lowest rate of misidentification at 18 percent of 56 samples.
Of further concern is that all of the 10 samples labelled "butterfish" and 10 of the 15 samples labelled "white tuna" were actually escolar, which can cause gastrointestinal problems, including diarrhea, vomiting, and nausea.
Also, all 18 of the samples labelled "yellowtail" turned out to be Japanese amberjack. Like many reef fish, amberjack contains the natural toxin ciguatera, which can potentially cause gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms, including blurred vision or tingling sensations.
The report expresses concern that Canada Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) new regulations are effective at the beginning of 2019 doesn't address seafood fraud. Consequently, Oceana Canada is calling the CFIA to work with provincial and federal agencies to implement authentication and inspection procedures and to align practices with major trading partners.
Their recommendations include systems to be implemented that will include traceability (to track products through seafood supply chains) and related verification and enforcement measures; catch documentation, which includes origin of fish and proof of legal harvesting; and harmonizing labelling standards with the European Union; and including naming protocols (such as using scientific species name to avoid ambiguity) and information such as geographic origin, fishing gear used, and if wild or farmed.
As for what consumers can do, Oceana Canada recommends becoming more educated about seafood, such as becoming aware of seasonal availability of seafood; asking questions, such as what species it is and where or how it is caught; buying whole fish, which is harder to misrepresent than fillets; buying from trusted seafood vendors or ones which have traceability systems; checking prices; and considering signing a petition at their website requesting the CFIA to implement a traceability system.