Foodborne illness is a real threat; one that may unknowingly come with your favourite seafood - Oceana Canada
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April 30, 2021

Foodborne illness is a real threat; one that may unknowingly come with your favourite seafood

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Like many Canadians, you might be trying to be more conscious of where your food comes from these days. Stories of food fraud – from seafood to honey to supplements – seem to be a constant in the media. It’s worrying and, as consumers, it’s normal to want to know how to keep ourselves and those we care about safe from products that aren’t what they claim to be.

So why is food fraud such a common occurrence these days? The primary driver – for seafood and for many other products – is economic. If you’ll pay more for a product than you should, whether it’s a fillet of tilapia mislabelled as red snapper or a jar of honey mixed with corn syrup, that means that someone further up the supply chain is likely pocketing the extra profit.

Seafood is at higher risk than most other products because of the way it ends up on the grocery store shelf or restaurant menu. Before reaching you, seafood passed through many sets of hands. Fish can be caught in one ocean by a vessel, transferred at sea to a vessel flagged to another country, then offloaded for processing. The processed fish can then be transported to another country (potentially on the other side of the world) for distribution and sale. These often-opaque supply chains can hide the true origins of seafood. Every time the fish changes hands is an opportunity for a bait and switch that can hurt our oceans, our wallets and even our health.

The combination of complex supply chains and a product like seafood that is at higher risk of causing negative health impacts is a concerning one. This higher degree of risk can be mitigated with implementing full-chain traceability through seafood supply chains, so that we know exactly where products come from and can feel confident about what’s on their labels. Traceability isn’t just important for ensuring products are not swapped out in the supply chain and sold as higher-priced products; it’s also critical to have proper traceability in a health crisis. From 2019 to 2020, when romaine lettuce sold throughout North America was contaminated with E-coli, a lack of traceability meant that this problem could not be immediately identified at the source, leading to a wider recall and more risk and uncertainty for consumers.

In the case of seafood, Oceana Canada’s studies have found species that pose health concerns substituted for different types of fish – meaning that consumers have no idea what they’re really getting and that they could be getting something that could make them sick. In our studies, we frequently found that products labelled butterfish or white tuna were actually escolar, a species known to pose health risks for some. Escolar is an oily fish that can cause acute gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting and nausea. While it’s legal to serve escolar in Canada, some countries have banned its sale because of the health risks. Canada has issued special guidelines, but frequent mislabelling of escolar means that consumers are susceptible to eating this fish without even knowing.

Other health risks of mislabelling include exposing consumers to allergens, toxins or environmental contaminants. Our current labelling standards in Canada, which allow dozens of species to be labelled with common names like snapper or sole, mean that even if a product is correctly labelled, you have no way of knowing exactly what species of fish you’re buying.

As our food supply chains become increasingly globalized, food safety matters now more than ever. Without full-chain traceability throughout seafood supply chains, consumers simply don’t have enough information to always make informed choices about the seafood they buy. To ensure that products being sold to Canadians don’t pose health risks, the government must act to implement boat-to-plate traceability for all seafood caught and sold in Canada.

We need your help to ensure Canadians are not affected by seafood fraud. Add your name to our petition calling on the Canadian government to implement effective, boat-to-plate traceability.