Canada’s food safety authority has announced improved monitoring to tackle seafood fraud, after a recent Guardian Seascape analysis found fish mislabelling to be widespread. However,environmental campaigners are concerned samples taken for a key report behind the announcement did not include restaurants and food services and used a less accurate methodology.
In its latest report, released on 24 March, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) said only 8% of the seafood it had sampled in the past two years was mislabelled, after new investments in food fraud reduction. It looked at 352 samples collected from domestic processors, importers and packaged fish at supermarkets in 2019 and 2020.
In a statement, Bernadette Jordan, Canada’s minister of fisheries, oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, confirmed that the government would take action “with industry to strengthen traceability and fight fish fraud”.
But the recent Guardian Seascape analysis revealed that 36% of more than 9,000 seafood samples obtained from more than 30 countries were mislabelled, including in Canada, where four studies documented rates ranging from 25% to 55%. One of those four was sponsored by CFIA, and found an overall mislabelling rate of 32.3%.
In June 2019, Canada invested C$24.4m (£14m) over five years to tackle food fraud, with the CFIA enhancing inspections, sample collection and testing of foods for authenticity. But the new report notably did not obtain samples from restaurants or other food service outlets, where mislabelling rates are consistently the highest.
Its methodology was also less strict than that of many of the other studies. To be considered properly labelled, samples needed only have the common name of the fish, a CFIA spokesperson said.
But a study published in Marine Science this month said CFIA’s “fish list” of common names was vague, outdated and misleading. “Over 100 species may be grouped under a single name, and dozens of different names can be used for a single species,” said the study, which called on Canada to urgently reform its seafood labelling and traceability policies.
Paul Lansbergen, president of the Fisheries Council of Canada, a seafood industry association, acknowledged that there were likely to be differences in methodology between CFIA’s study and others showing much higher rates. “Those other studies are looking to find mislabelling problems,” Lansbergen said. “CFIA is more objective.”
Josh Laughren, executive director of Oceana Canada, an environmental campaign group, said he was encouraged to see CFIA release the new study even though the result aligned neither with Oceana’s own sampling studies nor CFIA’s previous studies. “It reveals a need to do lots of sampling to get an accurate picture,” Laughren said.
More significant, he said, was Canada’s continued commitment to implementing better seafood traceability. In 2019 the prime minister, Justin Trudeau, issued a mandate letter to the health minister to develop a boat-to-plate traceability programme.
A CFIA spokesperson said a discussion paper on the programme would be released for public consultation in the coming months. “Transparency and traceability will do more than reduce mislabelling,” Laughren said. “It will help reduce illegal and unsustainable fishing, and improve labour practices.
Until the early 1990s Canada was the world’s largest seafood exporter. Today, only 24% of Canada’s marine fish stocks are considered healthy and the country imports more than it exports.