Would you eat tuna if you didn’t know where it’s from or what species it is? What about “light tuna” that has a diffuse luminous reflectance of not less than 22.6 per cent of that of magnesium oxide?
If the latter, you’re in luck. But if you want to know the former, then the proposed Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) rules resulting from a six-year Food Labelling Modernization Initiative won’t help you.
The top issue identified in the CFIA’s June 22 regulatory impact analysis statement is that consumers “are interested in more information on food labels, and they are increasingly concerned about misleading information.” Eighty-three per cent of Canadians say it’s important to know where food comes from.
So why the gap between what Canadians want and the information they’re given?
The initiative’s first stated objective is “expanding the requirement for country-of-origin labelling.”
That said, if you bought sockeye salmon in Canada recently, it’s more likely from Russian waters — even if labelled “Product of Canada.” You might have eaten Pacific salmon caught here, but labelled “Product of China” with no mention of Canada on the packaging. “Product of” means the place of last major transformation (e.g., filleting, packaging) — not where the seafood was caught or farmed.
Under the proposed regulations and guidelines, nothing will change. How is that truthful and not misleading?
People checking labels in Canadian grocery stores will have a hard time learning much; seafood is particularly susceptible to misleading labelling. The proposed regulations and guidelines don’t resolve this issue.
Despite more than 100 peer-reviewed international studies in the past decade highlighting the need for stringent regulation of seafood labelling to protect human health, the environment and human rights, The CFIA’s initiative fails to make necessary improvements or set the stage for future regulatory requirements.
In late June, proposed changes to regulations regarding several aspects of food labelling were released for public consultation under the Safe Food for Canadians Act and the Food and Drugs Act. The CFIA also completed a short consultation on guidelines for “Product of Canada” and “Made in Canada” claims.
Despite having six years to get it right, the CFIA’s draft regulations and guidelines fall short of what Canadians want, are below other countries’ standards and are inconsistent with issues the CFIA itself identified. In the case of some of the persisting regulations, such as the definition of “light tuna,” the suggested rules are just plain bizarre.
People in Canada want to know what seafood they’re eating — which means correctly labelling the species name. The CFIA initiative hasn’t even established a regulatory foundation for truthful naming of fish species. For example, “tuna” can be used on labels as an acceptable common name for 14 different species.
Australia recently overhauled some of its food labelling and country-of-origin rules. Consumers there know exactly what percentage of the product is made from Australian ingredients by weight and where other ingredients originate.
To reduce fraud, the European Union requires the seafood’s scientific name, geographic area of harvest and gear type on the label. Ironically, fish harvested in Canada and then exported to the European Union will carry the information Canadian consumers have requested and deserve.
A recent SeaChoice study of Canadian retailers found labelling quality is poor. Seafood sellers only meet our inadequate regulations and guidelines. Insufficient labelling requirements allow them to take advantage of consumers’ perceptions, such as assuming sockeye is a B.C. fish or not knowing the single allowable name “tuna” masks a wide range of quality, health, economic and sustainability concerns.
Despite the regulatory void, retailers such as Metro voluntarily label seafood with the scientific species name and geographic origin.
Proper seafood labelling has broad support from the Canadian public. Technology has advanced to allow for proper traceability through the supply chain from harvest to point of sale.
Canada is missing an opportunity to help local consumers and seafood harvesters while contributing to global fisheries sustainability. If you want to know more about where the seafood you’re eating comes from, you have until Sept. 4 to voice concerns about the proposed changes to the regulations.
Scott Wallace is a senior research scientist at the David Suzuki Foundation. His work is centred on species at risk, sustainable fisheries, marine protected areas and citizen science.