Care about our oceans? Stand up to fish fraud

Lobster boils, shrimp on the barbie, fresh fish by the seaside – summer is for seafood. But before you tuck in to your next crab cake, ask yourself: do you really know what you’re putting in your mouth? Chances are you don’t; an estimated 30 per cent of seafood sold globally is mislabelled. We have all likely been victims of fish fraud, which means we are also unwittingly complicit in one of the single greatest threats to our oceans. The good news is: we have the power to fight it, if we know what to ask and where to look.

Frozen fish on display for sale at Blue Comet Seafoods during the Vancouver Winter Farmer's Market at Bailey Stadium on Jan. 27, 2013.
(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Simply put, fish fraud – which includes mislabelling and adulterating products – tricks consumers into buying products they may not want. Given that the U.K. Food Standards Agency estimates 10 per cent of foods on the grocery shelves aren’t what they claim to be, the problem goes well beyond fish. But seafood is particularly vulnerable for two reasons: the global seafood supply chain is incredibly complex, and most of the seafood we buy is processed in some way. Even the fish-foodie experts among us would struggle to tell cod from basa (a type of catfish) in their fish and chips.

What we don’t know can hurt us. Falsely labelled products may conflict with our religious or social values. They can cheat us out of our hard-earned cash (for example, the chances of you buying a cheap piece of tilapia, but actually getting expensive Chilean sea bass are slim to none. The opposite is far more likely). And they may even put our lives at risk. Case in point, the two unfortunate Chicagoans who ended up in hospital after their monkfish dinner turned out to be highly-toxic pufferfish.

Fraud doesn’t just hurt the consumer: it takes a toll on the entire food industry. The victims are the honest players – the organic farmers, the sustainable fisheries – doing their part to give us authentically better choices. That brings us to the other significant impact of fish fraud: it’s wrecking our oceans.

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