'Laxative of the sea’ being passed off as premium fish in Canada: new report
Seafood is one of Canada’s largest exports, but a new report shows that 44 per cent of fish bought by Canadians is mislabelled as something other than what it is.
VANCOUVER—Canadian consumers forking out for seafood are not getting what they pay for. What masquerades as sea bass, cod or wild salmon could be a far cheaper catfish, pollock or even a fish dubbed "the laxative of the sea", according to a national report from advocacy organization Oceana Canada.
That poses a serious risk to consumers' pockets — and public health.
Roughly 44 per cent of fish were incorrectly labelled, the report found. What's more, 60 per cent of the roughly 400 samples collected from retailers in Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax were found to carry potential health risks.
Instead of butterfish, consumers have been eating escolar — an oily fish that has been called "the laxative of the sea" and can cause diarrhea, vomiting and other stomach problems — which is banned in several countries, such as Japan, South Korea and Italy. Escolar was also a substitute for white tuna.
This, researchers say, is rampant seafood fraud, defined as any activity that misrepresents the seafood being purchased.
"Beyond economic concerns, seafood fraud creates food safety and health risks, threatens our oceans, cheats honest fishers and vendors and creates a market for illegally caught fish, which masks global human-rights abuses," said Julia Levin, Oceana Canada seafood fraud campaigner, adding most Canadians don't know they're being cheated.
Canadian labels that read "product of" refer to the last point of transformation. That means even if a fish was caught in Canadian waters and packaged in China, the label will read "product of" China, Levin explained.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulates labelling of all food products. StarMetro reached out to the agency for comment on seafood fraud and planned changes to food safety regulations, expected in 2019.
An interview was not available before publication, however, the agency's website stated the new regulations will make the food system safer by replacing 14 sets of rules with one. They will also require food businesses to have licences and to be able "to trace their food back to their supplier."
In 2016, Canada exported a record $6.6 billion in fish and seafood products, a marked increase from the previous year. That's why the investigation focused on fish prone to being mislabelled for economic gain.
For instance, every single sample of snapper — 100 per cent — turned out to be another species, despite the CFIA Fish List allowing 200 fish species to carry that name, the report noted.
Tilapia, escolar and Japanese amberjack accounted for nearly 40 per cent of improper labels. The latter is a common substitution for yellowtail known to have ciguatera — a natural toxin that causes long-term debilitating neurological symptoms.
Notably, mislabelling rates were highest in restaurants. Three out of four times, the fish listed was more expensive than what was actually sold, the report noted.
That's because there's seafood fraud everywhere, said chef Robert Clark, co-owner of the Fish Counter restaurant in Vancouver. In fact, tackling mislabelling was a catalyst for his current career: He helped grandfather the sustainable seafood movement in Canada.
"Customers are concerned environmentally, socially, economically and about all these issues that surround food," he said in an interview. "Food is very political, every decision we make."
Clark said the only way to deter mislabelling is by making fish traceable from boat to plate. He sources his seafood locally and directly from fishermen.
"As Canadians, it should be unacceptable that we are being lied to. You wouldn't exchange money and get back less than what you expected," he said.
But even in the fast-growing niche market of local and sustainably caught seafood, fraud can still cheat consumers as well as honest vendors, Levin said.
The seafood supply chains are "notoriously" complex and opaque, making it "murky" to determine where a fish is coming from. Seafood is traded internationally more than any other food product, Levin explained.
A fish can cross international borders and change hands sometimes 10 times before ending up on the plate.
"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," explained Robert Hanner, professor of biology at the University of Guelph.
"This represents a $52-billion problem globally — all occurring under the noses of consumers, industry and governments."
Tracing fish from boat to plate works for the world's largest seafood importer, the European Union. The species' scientific name, the body of water in which it was caught and the production method are all listed on the package for the consumer at the point of sale, Levin said.
After putting in stringent traceability requirements, fraud rates dropped drastically within three years, she said. Even the U.S. has taken steps to follow suit.
But in Canada, regulations allow for "vague" and generic market names, Levin said, pointing to the CFIA Fish List, which allows more than 200 species to carry the "snapper" name.
When the food inspection agency proposed new Safe Food for Canadians Regulations last year, Oceana Canada submitted recommendations to include a system to trace all fish from boat to plate and require key information to follow products through the supply chain.
But Levin said the regulations, which come into effect next year, "fall short" — failing to address seafood fraud and leaving Canada well behind international best practices.
"We need penalties and enforcement measures at a high enough level to deter fraud paired with consumer labelling at the final point of sale, so that Canadians can make informed decisions," Levin said. "Canadian businesses who export are meeting the EU requirements. Canadian consumers deserve the same level of transparency."