mislabelled seafood

Mislabelled seafood remains a big problem in Canada

A new “DNA investigation” by Oceana Canada has found that the presence of mislabelled seafood products is still a big problem in Canada.

The charitable organization, part of an international advocacy group dedicated to ocean conversation, carried out a new study in cities across Canada where it has previously sampled seafood from grocery stores and restaurants.

The new study found that nearly half (46 per cent) of the seafood samples from Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto were mislabelled seafood (43 out of 94). This is barely an improvement on the rate of 47 per cent of mislabelled seafood that was found among 472 samples Oceana Canada tested between 2017 and 2019.

In the new report, Montreal was the worst offender with 52 per cent mislabelled seafood, followed by Toronto and Ottawa with 50 per cent each and Halifax with 32 per cent.

Alarmingly, the mislabelling rate among restaurants has increased from 56 per cent to 65 per cent since the previous study.

Key testing results from the study included:

  • 10 instances where products labelled as butterfish or tuna were actually escolar, which Oceana Canada says can cause acute gastrointestinal symptoms and is banned from sale in several countries
  • Among the 13 samples labelled snapper, seven were actually tilapia, which is a much cheaper species
  • All the samples of butterfish, yellowtail, and white tuna were mislabelled seafood (24 in total)

In addition, one of the species of fish on sale is not even authorized to be sold in Canada.

Sayara Thurston, seafood fraud campaigner at Oceana Canada, notes that the federal government committed to implementing a seafood traceability framework in 2019, which would bring Canada more in line with widely accepted global practices.

“The commitment is there,” Thurston said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had some challenges since then,” she says. “The pandemic broke out shortly after that commitment was made, but it has been almost two years now. What needs to happen next is putting a timeline in place.”

Thurston adds that traceability systems are already in place in other markets, such as the European Union and the United States.

Oceana Canada states that Canada does not require that seafood include information providing its origin, legality, or sustainability status. In addition, experience from other countries shows that “boat-to-plate” traceability regulations work to stop fraud and protect both consumers and the world’s oceans. 

When it comes to grocery retailers’ susceptibility to mislabelled seafood, Thurston says consumers are less likely to find the problem in grocery stores, where the rate was 6.5 per cent, lower than the 25 per cent combined average from Oceana Canada’s previous studies.

“Larger retailers have more purchasing power, more control over their supply chains, more consistent suppliers, and also more capability to put their own requirements in place compared to restaurants,” says Thurston. “So, in this study and in other studies, we consistently find that restaurants are at higher risk for finding mislabelled seafood products. But really what we need is a level playing field, and a mandatory regulatory solution is a level playing field where everybody has to meet those baseline requirements.”

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