More stringent standards sought to address problems with Canada’s seafood labeling

Published on
November 21, 2017

While the average consumer may wonder what a haddock loin is and how Atlantic salmon can come from Chile, in Canada, the question of fish labeling is becoming a more serious issue.

The University of Guelph’s LifeScanner DNA lab has studied samples taken from retailers across Canada and found widespread instances where seafood sold in supermarkets was either poorly labeled, mislabeled, or fraudulently labeled.

The study was conducted for an ocean advocacy organization called SeaChoice, which is operated by the David Suzuki Foundation, Ecology Action Centre, and Living Oceans Society.

The study relied on 300 volunteers to collect samples from 49 retailers for DNA testing. Only three percent of labels received an A grade for good labeling practice. Seven percent were deemed acceptable, 26 percent were unsatisfactory, and 57 percent were considered poorly labeled. One percent of samples were considered fraudulent.

Colleen Turlo, SeaChoice representative at the Ecology Action Centre in Halifax said in a media interview, “When we talk about fraud, we’re talking about what’s on the label is a completely different species than what’s in the package.”

“If something was listed as snapper but in the Canadian regulation it should be technically called Pacific snapper, we would just consider that mislabeling because it’s not necessarily misleading or too untruthful,” Turlo said. “But if something is labeled as cod and it is was actually hake, pollock or a different species, we would consider that fraud.”

Turlo told SeafoodSource a lack of regulations requiring clearer labeling made it difficult to tell whether seafood mislabeling was a result of lack of proper oversight or premeditated resistance to providing more information.

“In terms of the regulations a lot of that information has to travel throughout the supply chain, but doesn’t have to displayed at the point of sale,” she said. “So what we found through the DNA testing was there were a few retailers who were voluntarily giving more information on their seafood labels, but because the only real requirement is the common name, the majority of retailers were just kind of meeting that minimum standard required by the regulations.”

Considering the point of sale regulations for the U.S., Canada and the European Union, SeaChoice found “Canada has very minimal standards and of these standards retailers are more or less fulfilling the minimum requirements.”

In March, before Seafood Expo North America in Boston, the group issued Canada a failing grade on seafood labeling. According to its report, “Canadians Eating in the Dark,” of the six requirements for well-labeled seafood, Canada’s regulations only require two: the common name and the country of final processing, omitting the scientific name, production method (whether the fish is wild or farmed), harvest method and geographic origin.

The irony is that with 73 percent of Canadian seafood exported, foreign consumers have better product labeling than that sold domestically, Turlo said. In their conversations with the industry, Turlo said various members struggle with fitting all the desired – not yet required – information on a label. This is exacerbated by the necessity in the Canadian market for bilingual labels. 

Another issue is the data overhaul required to track and differentiate wild versus farmed product. 

“Some say the consumers aren’t asking for it. If they (the consumer) don’t care why would we give it to them?” Turlo said. “Our argument is, in this day and age when there are a lot of stories about seafood fraud and human rights abuses throughout the supply chain, that you increase your brand value and consumer’s trust by having more information. Information can safeguard you from being duped somewhere along the supply chain and ensuring that those few consumers who are interested can make a wise choice.”

SeaChoice has also been engaged in consultations on a food labeling modernization initiative by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). 

Turlo noted that while regulations are in flux, new regulations on seafood labeling and traceability though the supply chain are expected to published in the Canada Gazette by the spring of 2018. The new regulations are expected to be more stringent or comprehensive than what is currently legally acceptable, she said.

Reporting from Eastern Canada

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