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Canada has a ‘seafood fraud’ problem and it’s because of mislabelling, report finds

Click to play video: 'Seafood products being mislabeled in Canada' Seafood products being mislabeled in Canada
WATCH: An independent non-profit says close to half of the seafood sold in Canada isn’t actually what the label says it is. Travis Fortnum has more – Aug 6, 2021

An independent non-profit says close to half of the seafood sold in Canada isn’t actually what the label says it is.

A new report put out by Oceana Canada says, on average, 46 per cent of seafood samples subjected to DNA testing turned out to be mislabelled.

“It’s really concerning,” says Sayara Thurston, a seafood fraud campaigner with Oceana Canada.

“No one wants to be buying something without knowing what’s on the label.”

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The testing was done in the spring in four Canadian cities — Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal and Halifax – with seafood from both restaurants and retailers being tested.

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Montreal had the highest rate of what Thurston calls “seafood fraud,” with 52 per cent of samples tested there showing not to be the species on the label.

Ottawa and Toronto both yielded 50 per cent mislabelling rates; Halifax the lowest, with 32 per cent.

Thurston says that lower score in the Maritimes is not a surprise.

“In coastal communities mislabelling tends to be lower,” she says.

“Basically because you have greater access to local products and the shorter the supply chain, the less likely you are to find a product that’s been mislabelled.”

Sayara Thurston says Canada’s governments need to act to put boat-to-plate traceability measures in place.
Sayara Thurston says Canada’s governments need to act to put boat-to-plate traceability measures in place. Courtesy: Oceana Canada

The report shows a higher rate of mislabelling in restaurants than retailers, which Thurston says can be attributed to less control over the supply chain than a large retailer may have.

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“A product can be fished in southeast Asia, for example, or off the coast of Africa and then travel to two or three different countries before it ends up at its final destination,” Thurston says.

Oceana Canada does not release the names of the places it tests from, stating that the label change can happen at any point from the ocean to the table.

So what has to happen to fix this problem?

Thurston says it needs to be addressed at a government level.

“You shouldn’t need to be an expert in global trade or fish species to feel confident in what you’re buying in a Canadian restaurant or grocery store.”

The group previously conducted this type of study from 2017 to 2019, testing in the same four cities plus Vancouver and Victoria, B.C.

Back then, an average of 47 per cent of samples showed to be mislabelled.

In response, the government of Canada committed to implement a boat-to-place traceability system – but no plan to do so has come at this point.

The European Union and the United States both have traceability measures in place for seafood and Japan’s working on a plan now – so where’s ours?

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“Shortly after the commitment was made the pandemic did break out so there has been some challenges,” Thurston says.

“But it’s been almost two years and we haven’t seen a lot of concrete action.”

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No timeline for developing and implementing a boat-to-plate traceability system in Canada has come yet – which Thurston says must change.

In the meantime, she says the best thing for consumers to do is ask questions of the retailer or restaurant.

“Asking where the fish is from, how it was caught,” says Thurston.

“If that person doesn’t have that information, that’s not a great sign.”

She says if the price point seems too good to be true, it probably is.

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