Oceana – an environmental NGO – is known for its splashy reports on fish and seafood fraud. Their cumulative assessment across several Canadian cities showed that 44 per cent of the fish samples assessed were falsely identified. After Halifax, Toronto, Victoria, Ottawa, and Vancouver, Montreal is the latest market Oceana has looked at, and results are not great.
According to the report released last week, 61 per cent of samples picked up in Montreal’s restaurant and retail stores were mislabelled. More than one in three samples did not even have the right species identified. Apart from Victoria, where only 15 samples were analyzed, Montreal is the city where the largest percentage of mislabelled packages was recorded.
Food fraud is obviously a real problem, but by reading the report, we realize that the methodology used is not very clear. Ironically, Oceana itself lacked transparency when describing its sample design. We don’t know how establishments were chosen, or even if they were verified by a third-party organization that certifies ocean traceability practices, such as Oceanwise. It exists, but Oceana makes no mention of it in its report. It’s a bit odd that no one has questioned Oceana’s methods or sampling strategy.
Based on what we know, in other Canadian cities, anyone could ask Oceana to send a sampling kit. Anyone is able to go to any restaurant or retail outlet for a sample and send it back to Oceana. Samples are then processed by a professional laboratory. In other words, Oceana has gone fishing – fishing for samples without using a scientific approach. It may have happened in Montreal as well.
To add to these questionable practices, it seems that suspect species were targeted by participants and the samples collected were purposefully not representative of seafood consumption habits. Oceana simply presented results that supported a narrative of rampant fraudulence.
Food fraud is an issue we need to address, but the 61 per cent is perhaps a little inflated. More than 100 scientific studies on mislabelling of seafood products have been conducted in dozens of countries to date. Tens of thousands of samples have been tested on hundreds of species. Los Angeles had the highest rate of mislabelling at 41 per cent, but the report only looked at a handful of sushi restaurants. We are far from the 61 per cent coming out of Montreal and other Canadian cities.
The United Nations recently stated that anywhere between 20 and 25 per cent of all fish and seafood sold in the Western world is mislabelled. Canada has a great number of wonderful, accountable restaurants and responsible grocers. We shouldn’t unfairly judge all establishments the same way.
Nevertheless, Oceana’s work reminds us that seafood-related food fraud is a widespread problem with dramatic consequences for public health and species conservation. More attention is being given to fish and seafood labelling in recent years; the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in Ottawa and some provinces like Quebec and Ontario have been working on this issue for a while now. However, fish and seafood fraud remain highly misunderstood and complex issues.
Oceana recommends that we implement a boat-to-plate traceability program to protect consumers. In an ideal world, it could work. But things do get muddy between the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Fisheries and Oceans Canada, which does not even consider fish and seafood as food per se. What is required is random mandatory testing by businesses and the federal agency combined. Certification programs should also receive some support to reduce the risk of fraud. Most importantly though, no clear definition of food fraud is provided, and no laws or regulations directly address food fraud in Canada. This needs to be rectified as soon as possible so regulations can better align with our aspirations for eliminating food fraud across the board. In doing so, getting provinces and cities involved will only get easier.
The most powerful weapon against food fraud will remain public pressure. For that, Ireland is an interesting case. The mislabelling rate there for fish and seafood went from 34 per cent many years ago to zero per cent, just because everyone was talking about it. Public pressure-imposed discipline across the entire supply chain resulted in outright eliminating fish and seafood fraud. This could happen in Canada as well.
Even if its methodology is questionable at best, Oceana should be credited for its work on seafood fraud and making sure we keep this issue on our radars.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, and a senior fellow with the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.