Oceana Canada report uncovers widespread seafood fraud across country

Press Release Date: August 28, 2018

TORONTO – Oceana Canada, a leading ocean advocacy organization, released a new report today revealing alarming rates of seafood fraud in Canada, and called on the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to implement boat-to-plate traceability. In the most comprehensive investigation into seafood fraud and mislabelling in restaurants and retailers ever conducted in Canada, nearly 400 samples were tested from food retailers and restaurants in five cities across the country. Of these, 44 per cent were mislabelled.

“Seafood fraud, which describes any activity that misrepresents the products being purchased, is a massive issue, but most Canadians don’t even realize they’re being cheated,” says Julia Levin, Seafood Fraud Campaigner, Oceana Canada. “Beyond economic concerns, seafood fraud creates food safety and health risks, threatens our oceans, cheats honest fishers and vendors, and creates a market for illegally caught fish, which masks global human rights abuses.”

Oceana Canada staff collected 382 seafood samples from 177 retailers and restaurants in Halifax, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria for the report, Seafood Fraud and Mislabelling across Canada. In addition to the 44 per cent of samples (168 total) that did not meet the labelling requirements set out by CFIA, the report found:

  • Mislabelling rates were highest in restaurants, where 52 per cent of samples were mislabelled. In contrast, food retailers, including grocery stores and markets, reported mislabelling rates of 22 per cent.
  • Of the 177 food businesses assessed, 64 per cent sold mislabelled fish (114 businesses). Oceana Canada found fraud in 70 per cent of the restaurants tested (95 out of 136 restaurants) and 46 per cent of the retailers (19 of 41 retailers).
  • All 10 of the samples labelled “butterfish” and 10 of the 15 samples labelled “white tuna” actually turned out to be escolar. This oily fish can cause acute gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. Italy and Japan have banned the sale of escolar due to its potential side effects, with the Japanese government considering it to be toxic.
  • In 74 per cent of instances of mislabelling (124 out of 168 samples), the fish listed on restaurant menus or the label was a more expensive variety than the fish actually being sold. Of mislabelled samples, three species including tilapia, escolar and Japanese amberjack, accounted for almost 40 per cent of substitutions.

The investigation focused on fish species that other studies have shown are prone to being mislabelled because of their economic value, availability or popularity. For example, none of the 44 samples of so-called snapper samples collected turned out to be legitimate, despite the fact that the CFIA Fish List allows over 200 fish species to carry that name.

“In my career, I’ve been responsible for buying over 100 million dollars worth of food and beverages. The best food happens when we understand where it originated and its impact on the environment and overall sustainability,” says Chef Brad Long, Food Network host and owner of Café Belong in Toronto. “Putting a guarantee on species and origin is a crucial responsibility for not only the government, but everyone in our industry.”

Oceana Canada calls for boat-to-plate traceability

The global seafood supply chain is obscure and increasingly complex, with mislabelling and substitutions occurring at every stage: a 2016 review of more than 200 published studies from 55 countries found that one in five seafood samples were mislabelled. Without traceability regulations to ensure that each stage of the supply chain is transparent and verifiable, consumers are susceptible to fraud at every step of the way.

“A single fish can cross international borders and change hands multiple times before landing on your plate,” says Robert Hanner, associate professor, Department of Integrative Biology, University of Guelph. “A fish caught in Canada may be shipped to China to be gutted, to the U.S. to be breaded, then ultimately appear on shelves back in Canada, but be listed as an American product. With this complex supply chain, misidentification can happen at any stage.”

“Seafood fraud is a massive issue globally with some estimates suggesting it represents a $70-billion problem worldwide – that’s more than the heroin and firearms trafficking trades combined,” says Sylvain Charlebois, Professor in Food Distribution and Policy, Dalhousie University. “Traceability regulations are a crucial first step in increasing accountability and reducing fraud.”

Experience from countries like the EU shows that traceability rules work. The European Union, the world’s largest seafood importer, has instituted stringent traceability and comprehensive labelling requirements. As a result, fraud rates dropped from 23 per cent in 2011 down to seven per cent in 2014. And while the United States has taken steps to follow suit, Canada is drastically lagging behind.

Despite CFIA’s own research showing the prevalence of seafood mislabelling, Canadian regulations lack measures to deter seafood fraud. When CFIA proposed the new Safe Food for Canadians Regulations last year, Oceana Canada submitted recommendations to include a system to trace all seafood from boat-to-plate and require that key information follow all seafood products throughout the supply chain. Unfortunately, the regulations, which come into effect at the beginning of 2019, fail to address the problem of seafood fraud.

“Oceana Canada is calling on CFIA to institute boat-to-plate traceability to reduce seafood fraud and provide consumers with accurate information about the seafood they are purchasing,” says Levin. “Canada is an ocean nation, boasting the longest coastline in the world. But we’re not doing enough to ensure healthy, sustainable oceans for generations to come.”


For more information, please contact: Zoryana Cherwick, Communications Consultant, Pilot PMR, 416-462-0199 x232, 647-746-6764, zoryana.cherwick@pilotpmr.com

About Oceana Canada

Oceana Canada was established as an independent charity in 2015 and is part of the largest international advocacy group dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Canada has the longest coastline in the world, with an ocean surface area of 7.1 million square kilometres, or 70 per cent of its landmass. Oceana Canada believes that Canada has a national and global obligation to manage our natural resources responsibly and help ensure a sustainable source of protein for the world’s growing population. Oceana Canada works with civil society, academics, fishers, Indigenous Peoples and the federal government to return Canada’s formerly vibrant oceans to health and abundance. By restoring Canada’s oceans, we can strengthen our communities, reap greater economic and nutritional benefits, and protect our future. Oceana.ca/StopSeafoodFraud