Holly Lake – iPolitics

Oceana Canada is calling on the government to start tracking seafood from the boat to the plate after finding an alarming amount of seafood fraud in Ottawa — including at restaurants in the Parliamentary precinct.

In a report released today, Mystery Fish: Seafood Fraud in Canada and How to Stop It, the advocacy group says of the grocery stores and restaurants it visited earlier this year, nearly half the samples of seafood collected and tested — 45 out of 98 — were mislabelled. One third (33) were considered species substitution, since the name on the menu or label did not match the type of fish being sold.

What’s more, escolar — known as “the laxative of the sea” as it can cause acute gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting and nausea — was found to be a common substitute for both white tuna and butterfish.

Seafood fraud is any activity that misrepresents the product being purchased. It’s a long-standing global problem, with fraud affecting about 40 per cent of seafood worldwide.

In Oceana Canada’s sampling, restaurants had the highest rates of seafood fraud and mislabelling, with 68 per cent of sushi vendor samples and 51 per cent of non-sushi restaurant samples mislabelled. At grocery stores, 18 per cent of samples were mislabelled.

In all, fraud and mislabelling were found at 10 of 12 sushi vendors and 16 of 22 restaurants tested, including some of the most popular and prestigious restaurants and those known for serving sustainable seafood.

Of the 19 different types of fish targeted, fraud and mislabelling was found in 14 of them.

“In virtually all cases (where we sampled) it was a less expensive species being sold as a more expensive species,” said Josh Laughren, executive director of Oceana Canada.

Despite having the longest coastline in the world, an increasing amount of seafood is being shipped to Canada from overseas. It’s estimated up to 80 per cent of the seafood consumed here may be imported. That means seafood’s path from a fishing vessel to plate is incredibly complex, with a risk of fraud and mislabelling at each step.

“It’s impossible to know where along the way that this substitution takes place. It’s often before it comes into Canada. That’s why we’re not naming restaurants. It’s impossible to know if the restaurant and chef are also victims of fraud.”

That’s why traceability is so critical, Laughren said. Although Canadian scientists pioneered the DNA barcoding technology used to identify seafood, this country lags behind other nations and key trading partners — including those in the European Union, which have implemented robust and successful traceability standards. The United States has also taken important first steps on traceability which surpass Canadian regulations.

“Canada does not have a system of documenting and tracing seafood from the boat to our plate,” he said. “Full boat-to-plate traceability, paired with comprehensive labelling, can help our oceans, our wallets and our health, while restoring consumer confidence.”

So why is Canada lagging?

“I think it’s just a lack of priority,” Laughren said. “That’s why we think this testing was important to draw attention to the size of the problem. We think this ought to be more of a priority.”

That’s particularly true as Canada signs more trade agreements with the EU. Putting a system of traceability in place would ensure access to markets that mandate sustainable fisheries.

Oceana Canada is calling on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to step up and make combatting seafood fraud a priority and ensure all seafood sold in Canada is safe, legally caught and honestly labelled. 

As it stands, with more than 900 different species from all over the world sold here, it’s impossible for Canadian consumers to know exactly what fish they’re buying.

According to a 2017 Oceana Canada-commissioned Abacus Data research poll, almost half of Canadians (47 per cent) do not feel they have enough information about the fish they purchase from stores or restaurants.

When shown photos of common types of fish, most Canadians could not correctly identify them.

What’s more, this type of fraud is hurting the oceans, which are already under significant stress.

“Mislabeling allows for illegally caught fish to enter the market under the guise of a legally caught fish,” Laughren said. “That leads to overfishing, poor fishing practices and high levels of by-catch.”

It also distorts the consumer’s view of what’s going on in the sea.

“If you’re seeing red snapper on the market all the time for fairly cheap, it’s hard to accept that it’s a species in trouble,” he said, adding that “(of the fish sampled) not one of the things listed as red snapper was red snapper.”

The practice also hurts the fisherman who are working hard to fish in a sustainable way.

“If that’s being undercut by farmed fish posing as wild, that ruins that economic incentive for highly sustainable fisheries,” Laughren said.

Oceana Canada said this country needs a system that tracks seafood from the boat or farm to the point of sale, whether that’s a restaurant, store or market. The group is calling on CFIA to work with Fisheries and Oceans Canada to require catch documentation for all domestic and imported seafood. That would be in line with what’s required by the EU and recommended by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. 

Further, CFIA must introduce DNA testing for species authentication into its inspection program and incorporate inspection, verification and enforcement measures at levels high enough to deter fraud.

In terms of informing consumers, CFIA’s labelling standards—which should apply to wholesale, retail and restaurants—must be brought in line with markets that are already on this boat. Oceana Canada said in the EU, labels includes essential information such as the species’ scientific name, whether the fish was wild-caught or farmed, where it came from (geographic origin) and the type of fishing gear used.

Whether CFIA is up to the task of creating a system of traceability is a question for the agency to answer, Laughren said.

“We look forward to hearing from them about how they think this can be done within their resources and to meet industry needs. We want this to be done in a way that works for Canadian fisherman. Let’s get that discussion going. That’s why we did the report.”

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