Catfished: Mislabelled seafood is the new normal

By Gregory Furgala

How sure are you that what you bought is what you paid for? Organic labels have found themselves on non-organic produce, wood pulp has been found in Parmigiano and saffron is occasionally cut with corn silk and cotton thread. Food fraud isn’t a new phenomenon. The Roman Empire established an entire bureaucracy to verify the producer, quality and origin of its olive oil, and in The Jungle, Upton Sinclair famously chronicled the dubious production of processed meat at the turn of the 20th century. The history of food is the history of faking it.

Canadian consumers, then, shouldn’t feel too guilty about falling for mislabelled fish. But they should be wary.

A recent report from Oceana Canada, an internationally-affiliated advocacy group focused on ocean conservation, found that 44 per cent of fish sampled across five cities, Vancouver, Victoria, Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax, was mislabelled. In most cases, cheaper fish was substituted for high-end product, like haddock for cod, or farmed salmon for wild salmon. It’s galling enough being cheated, but there are public health implications as well. Escolar, which can lead to gastrointestinal distress, was occasionally served as butterfish and white tuna. The problem is worse in restaurants, with Oceana reporting that fish was mislabelled or misrepresented 68 per cent of the time.

It might be tempting to blame the chef — they’re the one selling the fish, right? — but Julia Levin, a seafood fraud spokesperson for Oceana Canada, says there’s ample opportunity for fraud before the chef ever sees the product.

“It can happen at any point in the supply chain,” says Levin. “It’s really complex and long, and it’s nearly impossible to do that kind of backward accountability.”

“Nobody keeps track of how many of those imports originated in Canadian waters, or where they originated at all.”

Between getting reeled onto a boat and plated by a chef, fish can go through several stages of processing, packaging and transport, and a 2016 Oceana study found mislabelling or substitutions occurred on every step of that journey. Even Canadian-caught fish can skip across international borders before ending up on Canadians’ plates. According to Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Canada exports 75 per cent of its catch, netting $6 billion annually, and imports $3.5 billion-worth of seafood. Nobody keeps track of how many of those imports originated in Canadian waters, or where they originated at all. Levin is confident it’s a substantial portion, though.

“We know it’s a large portion, but the only labelling information that’s required is the country of last transformation” — meaning a food item’s last point of processing — “so a lot of Canadian products might say, ‘product of China’ on them,” says Levin. Eating re-labelled Canadian-caught salmon might not be particularly risky, but it nevertheless contributes to a byzantine, opaque supply chain that undermines consumer confidence in what they’re buying.

“Certainly the longer the supply chain is,” Levin continues, “the more chance of mislabelling.”

“To say that probably 10 to 20 per cent of all products in Canada are counterfeited, misrepresented or adulterated is probably a conservative number.”

Sylvain Charlebois is a professor at Dalhousie University and studies global food systems, including the food fraud taking place within them. While he cautioned against Oceana Canada’s methodology, which he said wasn’t scientifically rigorous, he noted that its results are consistent with his own extensive research, which across a few studies found that 25 to 75 per cent of processed food was mislabelled. It’s a broad range, but echoing Levin, Charlebois notes that it’s a difficult industry to crack, with several layers and opportunity for wrongdoing.

“The problem is likely higher than the retail level,” says Charlebois. “It’s probably up the food chain, and it gets more complicated the closer we get to the source. It’s an obscure industry. A lot happens out there at sea.”

Like any black market, determining the market value of fish fraud is challenging — fraudsters aren’t exactly forthcoming about their trade — but Charlebois estimates that it’s a $52 billion industry. To put that in perspective, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the global cocaine trade is an $84 billion industry. Fraudulent food isn’t a rarity. It’s commonplace, and it’s profitable.

“To say that probably 10 to 20 per cent of all products in Canada are counterfeited, misrepresented or adulterated is probably a conservative number,” says Charlebois. “In seafood it would be above that average.”

 “Be skeptical. Price will drive decisions in business, but be suspicious.” 

The answer is an easy one: traceability. Oceana’s report recommends that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency require key information to follow all seafood products from the boat to final sale, including catch documentation for all domestic and imported seafood, and strict labelling that identifies the exact species and whether or not the fish was farmed or wild-caught. Implementing it, however, is a monumental challenge that will take some time, requiring buy-in from chefs, distributors, suppliers and the global fishing industry. The political will for change might not even exist, either. In Europe, it took the 2013 horse meat scandal, in which ground beef was found to have contained horse, to prompt an overhaul of its traceability requirements. So until Canada’s own horse meat moment, what’s a chef to do?

“Chefs and whoever else is buying seafood should ask for the specific species, not just the labelled one,” says Levin. “They should ask exactly where it came from and how it was caught. That kind of information should be available to them.” Levin also recommends that chefs try to shorten their own supply chains by buying domestically from trusted sources that can provide the additional information that ought already be supplied. Levin singles out a few reliable distributors, including Afishionado Fishmongers in Halifax and Hooked in Toronto.

Charlebois’ advice is more succinct: “Be skeptical. Price will drive decisions in business, but be suspicious.” In the end, he says, it boils down to trust.