Peter Hum – Ottawa Citizen

Tests of fish sold at more than 20 Ottawa restaurants, a dozen sushi vendors and 10 grocery stores found rampant fraud involving menus and packaging that misrepresented the fish being sold, says a report released Wednesday by Oceana Canada.

The independent charity focused on ocean conservation tested 98 samples last July and found that 45 were mislabelled. The mislabelling occurred at 10 of 12 sushi vendors, 16 of 22 restaurants and four of 10 grocery stores.

Oceana Canada does not name the businesses involved but says it chose them “based on their popularity, including among politicians and decision-makers, and their proximity to Parliament Hill.” The restaurants where mislabelling was found included “popular and prestigious restaurants and those known for serving sustainable seafood,” says a release from Oceana Canada.

Holly Thornton, a spokeswoman for Oceana Canada, said in an interview that most of the restaurants were within a kilometre of the Hill in Centretown and in the ByWard Market.
“We are reaching out directly to the ones where we found mislabelling so they are aware of it, and are working with some to address the issue, “Thornton said.
“Seafood fraud and mislabelling can happen anywhere along the supply chain and we can all be victims of it,” Thornton said. “The objective of the investigation was to show how widespread this issue is and work with the government to improve boat-to-plate traceability.”

Almost three-quarters (33 of 45) of the mislabellings were deemed “species substitutions,” in which, for example, red snapper was listed on a menu or label but tilapia was being sold.

Of nine samples of red snapper tested, none was accurately labelled. Six were, in fact, tilapia (which is typically a third of the cost of red snapper), one was rockfish, one was Pacific Ocean perch, and one was lane snapper, an overfished species, the report says.

The testing also found that of four of five samples of “white tuna” were in fact escolar, an oily fish nicknamed “the laxative of the sea” because it can cause gastrointestinal distress.

Samples were analyzed by TRU-ID, a Guelph, Ont., lab that performed genetic testing to determine the species of fish under consideration.

Michael Radford, executive chef for the Whalesbone group of restaurants, said Whalesbone on Kent Street location was visited by Oceana Canada. “There was initially … some confusion regarding where our cod is from, (but) it was quickly resolved,” he said. “So the Whalesbone establishments were in the clear, as we should be.

“We go to great lengths in working with reputable seafood purveyors that are able to offer us choices that meet our expectations of sustainability and traceability,” Radford said.

Mike Arai, the owner of C’est Japon à Suisha on Slater Street, said his restaurant, which has served sushi for more than two decades, buys fresh, whole fish as much as possible from a trusted supplier and doesn’t serve tilapia or escolar. “We don’t use that,” he said. “We find out it’s not good fish.”

Other sushi restaurants, Arai said, may wind up with mislabelled seafood after buying frozen pieces of fish. “You can’t go for cheap stuff,” he said.

Radford said he wasn’t surprised about mislabellings in sushi venues. “Years ago I worked at a sushi restaurant and I remember learning that the “tai” (red snapper) sashimi being offered on the menu was actually nothing more than tilapia, where for some reason the bloodline has been dyed to lend itself to a reddish, very fresh-looking hue.”

In addition to the species substitutions, eight instances involved menu and labelling information that did not meet the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s requirements, such as indicating the particular species of Pacific salmon. Four of the 45 samples were found to be species that were not approved for sale in Canada.

The testing also found that 20 of 98 samples were farmed fish labelled as wild-caught. The testing found farmed tilapia sold as snapper, farmed salmon sold as wild and farmed catfish sold as sole.

“In terms of other restaurants’ mislabelling products, I think the biggest culprit would have to be farmed salmon being sold as a sustainable choice — when it in fact is not being sourced from an aqua-cultured source that adheres to the guides and regulations of one of the many marine stewardship councils — or worse, even being sold as wild salmon,” said Radford. “I guess as in many businesses there are always going to be people that try to take advantage of certain catchphrases (or) marketing trends.”

The charity’s tests found that restaurants had the highest rates of seafood fraud, with 68 per cent of sushi vendor samples and 51 per cent of non-sushi restaurant samples mislabelled. Eighteen per cent of grocery store samples were mislabelled.

Oceana Canada is calling on the CFIA to make combating seafood fraud a priority and to ensure all seafood sold in Canada is safe, legally caught and honestly labelled. It is also urging Canadians to sign an online petition in support of clamping down on seafood fraud and says that it will conduct further testing in restaurants and grocery stores across Canada.

The issue of seafood fraud is hardly new. A 2011 study done at the University of Guelph found that 41 per cent of fish in samples from five Canadian cities — Vancouver, Toronto, Gatineau, Que., Montreal and Quebec City — were mislabelled. Oceana also collected fish samples in 2013 and 2014 from restaurants and grocery stores in Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and found 43 per cent of salmon samples tested were mislabelled.

© Ottawa Citizen