By Rebecca Brady
Seafood mislabelling — even “fraud” — is rampant in Ottawa, according to an Oceana Canada report that found almost half the fish sampled from 42 local establishments were improperly identified.
In response, the organization is appealing to the federal government to introduce laws on fish traceability, so a fish can be traced from the moment it is caught to the moment it’s served up on a plate.
This comes after the Toronto-based environmental and consumer advocacy organization published a new study that claims nearly half of all fish products it investigated in Ottawa were mislabelled.
The report found that 45 out of the 98 samples Oceana Canada tested were mislabelled and that a third were marked as the wrong species altogether. The organization focused on testing products from restaurants and seafood sellers in central Ottawa to drive home its message to the MPs on Parliament Hill, who are likely to be consumers of fish in the downtown area.
Joshua Laughren, executive director of Oceana Canada, said that mislabelling fish can be bad news for citizens of Centretown and anywhere else in terms of money and personal health.
“For our wallets, in almost every case, somewhere along the line they’ve substituted a cheaper fish for a more expensive one, so you’re paying more than you want to for what you’re getting,” he said. “That hurts honest fishermen too, who get cheated out of money they should get for legally caught, sustainably caught species.”
Laughren said mislabelled fish opens up the possibility of exposing people to higher levels of toxins or allergens than they might expect. For example, the report found that what was frequently labelled as white tuna was actually escolar — a fish known as the “laxative of the sea” due to its propensity to cause gastro-intestinal problems if consumed in large quantities.
Laughren also explained that incorrectly labelled fish were providing “a way for illegally caught fish to enter the legal marketplace,” which contributes to over-fishing.
The report does not incriminate any specific businesses – the misidentification could have occurred anywhere along the production chain, the group states, and therefore blame is difficult to assign.
But the report does claim that several of the restaurants investigated are close to Parliament Hill and popular with government officials.
Oceana Canada is campaigning for the federal government to enforce tighter restrictions as labelling is the responsibility of both Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.
Currently, fish are labelled and regulated according to the policies of the Food and Drugs Act, the Fish Inspection Act and the Consumer Packaging and Labelling Act.
“The CFIA cannot comment on the sampling methodology or the results of this particular independent study,” Natasha Gauthier, a CFIA spokesperson, said in an email to Centretown News. “Samples tested through independent research may use different criteria from the CFIA requirements, such as looking at voluntary information like harvesting method or scientific species name, to deem whether a food has been mislabelled.”
Selling misrepresented fish is something the CFIA investigates. It inspects within the importation, processing and retail stages, and investigates consumer complaints by DNA-based identification testing.
Despite not exposing the names of businesses accused of what it called “seafood fraud,” the report authors said they included 12 sushi vendors and 22 restaurants in its study.
“You know, we provide a service and we hope that all of our customers pass on the ethically sourced, properly labelled seafood to their customers,” said Kyle Hector, a sales representative for Gerry’s Fish Market on Catherine Street, which sells to restaurants throughout Ottawa. “But if they’re not doing that, I don’t know because they didn’t list specifics in the (report). I’m not sure whether it’s our customers or not. If it were our customers, we would definitely be upset that they were altering the integrity of our products.”