Canadians aren’t big fish eaters according to Statistics Canada, averaging less than 10 kilograms per person each year..
But it’s safe to say when we do tuck into a nice piece of cod or tuna, we want to be certain that’s what we’re actually eating.
An investigation by Quebec’s Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food suggests our confidence may be misplaced.
As reported by CBC News, a five-month study of fish sold at supermarkets, seafood stores and restaurants found that almost a third of the products were labelled as the incorrect species.
What’s worse, a majority of the incidents were intentional. Out of 121 samples DNA tested between last November and this March, 39 were wrongly identified. Fifteen incidents were attributed to mistranslation from English to French, but the rest were deliberately mislabeled.
Cheap fish were often misrepresented as more-expensive varieties and sold at the higher price point, increasing profits at the expensive of the consumer.
Those cases were handed off to the province’s Justice Ministry, with the offending retailers subject to fines.
But the problem is hardly limited to Quebec, says the president of the Consumers Association of Canada.
“I would describe this as a chronic problem, in that it seems to be always there,” Bruce Cran told Yahoo Canada News.
“But every now and again it comes heavily to light because of a particular revelation.”
[ Related: Fish incorrectly labelled for ‘better profits’ in Quebec ]
Indeed, the Vancouver Sun reported a 2011 Canadian study found that between 25 and 41 per cent of samples submitted from stores and restaurants across the country were wrongly-identified.
A two-year study commissioned by the conservation group Oceana and published last year revealed that one-third of the 1,215 DNA samples analyzed from retail outlets in 21 U.S. states were mislabeled.
For some species, such as fish labeled snapper or tuna, the mislabeling rate was even higher – 87 and 59 per cent respectively. In some cases, farmed salmon was sold as wild salmon – a regular complaint, according to Cran.
The worst offenders among the 700 retailers were sushi restaurants (74 per cent), followed by other restaurants (38 per cent) and grocery stores (18 per cent), the study found.
Regulations governing the labeling of fish and fish products come under the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), but Cran says the agency’s record of enforcement is spotty.
“As far as I’m aware, there is no ongoing plan where CFIA continually inspects fish,” he said in an interview Wednesday. “They seem to respond to acute complaints only.
“The CFIA have been cutting back on routine inspections in favour of taking a few samples here and there. We don’t like it but they never seem to respond to our complaints.”
Questions about the agency’s inspection policy were submitted to the CFIA but the agency’s media relations office did not respond by deadline.
A spokesman for the Quebec fisheries ministry said it was enforcing the federal regulations.
“Basically the rules are established by the Canadian agency and we are applying them here,” Alexandre Noel told Yahoo Canada News.
[ Related: Food inspection office closure annoys MP ]
Cran said the consumers’ association regularly receives complaints about tainted and mislabeled fish. Some involve processed fish products made from pollock, a bottom-feeder fished in large quantities and ground up, sometimes bones and all. It turns up in things like frozen fish sticks and fake crab meat.
“We have had complaints in the past of tilapia [an Asian farmed fish] being served as more expensive fish in restaurants,” Cran added.
The association has done its own sample testing in the past, he said, but DNA testing is expensive. That leaves consumers trusting that regulators are monitoring the products they eat.
“Most people have great expectations of institutions like the Canadian Food Inspection Agency,” said Cran. “I’m not sure that they’re entitled to a lot of confidence from Canadians because they simply are not out there randomly testing.”
So where does that leave Canadian fish-lovers?
“Ask questions,” said Noel. “There’s a chain from the sea to the plate and the actors in this chain have a shared responsibility.”
Customers who have any doubt about what’s being offered should ask the restaurant or retailer, he said.
“They’re supposed to know about it and if they don’t know about it they should ask questions themselves,” said Noel.
But that’s not so easy for those who can’t tell tuna from tilapia.
“I don’t think they’ve got a snowball’s chance in hell of seeing if they’ve bought an inferior fish, unless they’ve got some real expertise in their own background,” said Cran.