While controversy over horsemeat in the European beef and pork supply has captivated people around the world, food experts say Canadian consumers are blasé about mislabelled seafood in North America.
DNA analysis shows 33 per cent of fish sold in grocery stores, restaurants and sushi venues in the U.S. is mislabelled, according to a recent study conducted at the Biodiversity Institute of Ontario (BIO) at the University of Guelph.
The result is consistent with a 2011 study by BIO that looked at samples from five Canadian cities, including Vancouver, Toronto, Gatineau, Que., Montreal and Quebec City and found that 41 per cent of fish was mislabelled.
The latest study of U.S. fish samples, commissioned by the ocean conservation group Oceana, found inferior farmed fish are often substituted for more expensive species. For instance, pangasius is often sold as grouper, sole and cod; tilapia as red snapper; and Atlantic farmed salmon as wild or king salmon.
Dirk Steinke, BIO's director of education and outreach who conducted the 2011 study and helped interpret the results of the latest U.S. sample tests, said he was "a little amused" by Canadian consumers' lukewarm response.
"Of course the Americans were very shocked. I saw a few reactions from close by in B.C., where people said in Canada that won't be the case. Knowing that in Vancouver we found the same rate [of mislabelling], I'm a little surprised to hear that," he said.
Among the recent study’s key findings:
- Red snapper and tuna are the most frequently mislabelled species (87 and 59 per cent, respectively).
- Only seven of the 120 red snapper samples tested correctly.
- 84 per cent of white tuna samples were actually escolar, which can cause digestive issues for some people.
Mike Nagy, a sustainable food systems consultant in Ontario, said that consumers seldom tolerate fraudulent labelling of land-based food like beef, but there is less diligence when it comes to seafood.
“Somehow in our psyche, especially in Central Canada where we are not tied to the coast, seafood is sort of off our radar,” he told CBC Radio’s The Current.
According to Nagy, consumers who fall for seafood mislabelling are not only paying more for lower-grade items, they might also be buying fish that is unsustainable and carry potential health risks.
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which enforces the country’s food labelling laws, was not available for comment.
Learning from “Sushi-gate”
Seafood fraud has garnered the interest of researchers since 2008, when two high school students from New York did a DNA analysis that found a quarter of fish products at Manhattan sushi restaurants and seafood markets were mislabelled.
Steinke said that since "Sushi-gate," there has been no improvement in fish labelling, despite numerous studies that confirmed the global trend.
"I don’t see anybody being punished for mislabelling anything. I don’t see any kind of legislation that actually tracks them down."
Steinke added that while the horsemeat that somehow managed to show up in the European beef and pork supply is likely an accident that will eventually sort itself out, the rampant seafood fraud is an ongoing global problem.
"It's a systematic way of keeping the entire economy going on the wrong premises," he said.
According to Steinke, the seafood industry's identity crisis is driven largely by the financial pressures on companies having to deal with depleted fish stocks. As a result, they take advantage of the price gap by substituting lower-grade fish for expensive species.
While financial advantage is a factor, the sheer number of transactions from the fishing vessel to the dinner table also complicates the labelling process, Nagy said.
"So you have vast amount of products going through vast amount of hands, and that leaves a lot of room for substitution and fraud," he told CBC News.
‘Difficult to make an informed choice’
Nagy said the problem is made worse by Canada's lax labelling system, which gives buyers little information about the country of origin and the capture method of seafood products.
"It's very difficult to make an informed choice just based on basic product [labelling], let alone whether it's the right product in there or not," he said.
Melanie Joy, a Harvard-educated psychologist and author of Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows, said she is "curious about the public's reaction" to the latest seafood fraud study.
"What I find interesting is this study doesn't seem to have been as widely disseminated as the horsemeat one," she told CBC News.
She cited “carnism,” a belief system that guides us to eat certain animals. She said that the more we identify with an animal, the more likely we are to feel empathy for it and the less likely we are to want to eat it.
"It’s easier for humans to identify with mammals, for example, than it is to identify with fish. It's more difficult to perceive the suffering of fish and other aquatic life," she said.
"The idea of eating horsemeat causes a stronger moral reaction and therefore a stronger level of disgust."
Clams take the number 10 spot on the list of seafood most consumed by Americans, with 0.341 pounds per capita. According to Monterey Bay Aquarium's <a href="http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx" target="_hplink">Seafood Watch</a>, most varieties of clams are considered "best choices" in terms of sustainability.
Pangasius, perhaps more commonly known as tra, swai and basa, is consumed at 0.405 pounds per capita, a 14 percent jump from 2009. Pangasius is a flaky, tender white fish that is typically both <a href="http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_search.aspx?s=pangasius" target="_hplink">imported and farmed</a> (see <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/magazine/12catfish-t.html" target="_hplink">this fascinating article</a> from The New York Times). It is also referred to as <a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pangasius" target="_hplink">iridescent catfish</a>. <br><br> Seafood Watch score: Good Alternative.
Every year, 0.463 pounds of cod is consumed per capita. Cod is a complicated species; a <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Cod-Biography-Fish-Changed-World/dp/0140275010" target="_hplink">whole book</a> has been dedicated to how the fish changed the world. The many varieties of cod range from "best choice" recommendations (hook-and-line-caught Atlantic cod) to species better to avoid (wild-caught imported Pacific cod).
As participants in crab feasts are well aware, there isn't a lot of meat in an individual crab. Perhaps that's why the shellfish hasn't broken the Top 5, with 0.573 pounds per capita eaten per year. <br><br> Like cod, there are some crabs deemed more sustainable than others. Best to avoid imported King crab, while Dungeness crab seems to be a safer bet.
We eat 0.8 pounds per capita of this bottom-dwelling, bizarre-looking fish. Seafood Watch calls catfish a "best choice." It's also the topic of the TV show "<a href="http://animal.discovery.com/tv/hillbilly-handfishin/" target="_hplink">Hillbilly Handfishin'</a>."
5. Alaska Pollack
The Top 5 seafood all break the one-pound-per-capita consumption mark. Alaska pollack is consumed at a rate of 1.192 pounds per capita. Pollack is widely used in the fast food industry: Think <a href="http://www.treehugger.com/files/2009/02/mcdonalds-seafood.php" target="_hplink">McDonald's Filet-O-Fish</a>. <br><br> Seafood Watch score: Good Alternative.
In recent years, tilapia seems to have become many cooks' go-to white fish, thanks to its relatively cheap price and the ease of farming it. Americans ate a staggering 20 percent more tilapia in 2010 than they did in 2009. <br><br> Seafood Watch score: Farmed tilapia from the U.S. and Latin America tend to be OK, but best to avoid that fish coming from Asia.
Nearly 2 pounds of salmon (1.999 to be exact) are eaten per person per year. That explains why there are so many concerns about overfishing and depletion of stocks. The Monterey Bay Aquarium suggests avoiding farmed salmon.
2. Canned Tuna
Americans eat 2.7 pounds per person per year of canned tuna. Many tuna species are best to avoid, according to Seafood Watch, but albacore canned tuna remains a good alternative.
Bubba in "Forrest Gump" had it right ("shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad ..."). There are a lot of ways to eat shrimp. That's why the average American consumes 4 pounds of it every year. Like other diverse seafood species, shrimp can be either a <a href="http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/SeafoodWatch/web/sfw_search.aspx?s=shrimp" target="_hplink">good or bad choice</a> for your dinner table. Safer bets are spot prawns and rock shrimp.