TORONTO — Do you know where your fish and seafood come from?
Seafood mislabelling and fraud, which happen around the globe, have consequences for consumers’ wallets and their health, as well as for the world’s oceans, lakes and rivers.
Shoppers are cheated when lower-cost species are passed off as more expensive ones, like swapping tile fish, which can have high mercury levels, for snapper. Farmed salmon may be marketed as wild and pollock might be passed off as cod.
Oceana, a non-profit ocean advocacy group, found that, on average, one in five of the more than 25,000 samples of seafood tested worldwide in recent years were mislabelled. Up to 41 per cent of the Canadian seafood samples undergoing DNA analysis were also mislabelled.
“Once you have filleted a fish and it’s white meat or a salmon fillet, it’s very difficult for the average person to identify the species of fish and where it came from. So often a cheap fish will be used as an expensive fish as a way for a business to basically defraud consumers,” says Eric Enno Tamm, general manager for ThisFish, a seafood traceability system founded in Vancouver.
“That appears to be — from the data and surveys of the marketplace — a largely common practice.”
It’s simple to disguise fish. Whole fish can be cut into fillets, nuggets can be battered and deep-fried, or the flesh can be ground and added to croquettes and fish cakes.
“Unless you buy your fish with the head attached and you’re very good at your fish ID it’s very easy to mislead people,” says Laura McDonnell, an aquatic biologist at McGill University.
Most often mislabelling simply affects wallets. But one species can cause nasty gastrointestinal problems in some people.
Escolar, the common name for snake mackerel or oilfish, has been misidentified or mislabelled as gemfish, rudderfish, butterfish, sea bass, blue cod, ruddercod and walu, says Health Canada. It can be legally imported into Canada and is most often sold frozen or served in restaurants.
It has a buttery texture that some people love. “But that same kind of oily texture can make some people have very violent diarrhea or vomiting and there’s definitely been cases of that, which is worrisome,” says McDonnell.
Guidelines exist for storage temperature of various fish species, but if it’s mislabelled it might not be kept under the correct conditions, resulting in illness. Or it may not be labelled as being from an area where certain contaminants or diseases exist, such as ciguatera, a food-borne illness often found in contaminated large-reef species like barracuda, grouper, red snapper and moray eel in the Caribbean.
Fraud can include piracy, where illegal seafood like endangered sturgeon caviar is laundered into the market and labelled as legal.
“Then it’s sold, sometimes by legitimate retailers and restaurants who don’t know any better, as legal seafood. That’s a common practice,” says Tamm.
But even more troubling for McDonnell, who has seen a decline in the health of marine systems in her work, is the fact that fish entering our markets may have been swimming in a colossal soup of garbage and plastic. As a result, she’s phased fish out of her diet.
She notes chemical additives and other substances in plastic leach into the water. Algae accumulates on floating plastic and microbeads so it looks like food to fish.
“We know that fish are eating this. Would you be OK with it if your chickens or your cows were eating plastic daily? … There’s this mentality wild-caught fish is so pristine. No water is pristine any more.”
What’s a consumer to do?
Canadians on the coasts can buy fresh-caught local seafood. Others should ask stores and restaurants about their source.
Technology can sometimes help. ThisFish, a cloud-based platform, allows fishermen and seafood businesses to upload data about their catch. Consumers and chefs can scan QR codes with their smartphones to discover the story.
The system grew out of collaboration with the non-profit Ecotrust Canada and a group of fishermen on Vancouver Island who wanted to tell consumers how and where their fish was caught, that it was sustainably harvested and responsibly handled, says Tamm.
Participants include fishermen and seafood businesses across Canada as well as in Brazil, Chile, the U.K., Indonesia and Vietnam.
The app Seafood Watch provides recommendations and information on stores and restaurants that serve ocean-friendly fish.
Spencer Watts, host of the James Beard Award-winning TV show “Fish the Dish,” looks for trusted labels such as Ocean Wise, MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) and ASC (Aquaculture Stewardship Council).
He avoids exotic products. “Fish has a four-day window. If it’s coming from the other side of the planet, it could be out of date before it even gets here,” Watts says from Vancouver. “That’s why I try to stay more with stuff that’s from North America.”
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has a list of French and English common names acceptable in Canada for imported fish and toxins or other hazards they may be subject to.
Despite her misgivings, McDonnell acknowledges the lean protein has health benefits.
“Omegas are wonderful. As a scientist, (I know) they’re totally necessary for brain functioning. It would be a shame if people had to stop eating fish because it is an excellent source of all those things.”
Registered dietitian Andrea D’Ambrosio of Kitchener, Ont., notes Canada’s Food Guide recommends eating at least two 75-gram servings of fish a week with an emphasis on varieties like char, herring, Atlantic mackerel, salmon and sardines, which are higher in omega-3 fatty acids. Statistics Canada says close to 40 per cent of Canadians are not getting enough omega-3s, which is putting them at an increased risk for heart disease.
“From a dietitian perspective, with the mass amount of food fearmongering, and abundance of information available at our fingertips, people are more fearful and distrustful of food than ever before, leading them to feel simply overwhelmed and uncertain about what they can safely eat,” D’Ambrosio says.
“It is unfortunate when this leads to restricting otherwise healthy foods, like salmon.”