When it comes to seafood, voting with your wallet is harder than you think.

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On Sept. 25, Canadian food industry professionals and academics wrote an open letter addressed to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency in an ongoing attempt to combat rampant seafood fraud across the country.

Calling it a type of “bait and switch” when it comes to packaging and labelling of seafood, the letter refers to an Oceana report on global seafood fraud which found, on average, one in five of the 25,000 samples of seafood tested worldwide were mislabelled.

But as Robert Hanner an associate Professor with the Biodome Institute of Ontario at the University of Guelph stated in a report he co-authored in 2011, it’s no different in Canada.

“Not only are we seeing things that are deliberately mislabeled that are economically motivated fraud but there’s also a fair bit of vaugery in our nomenclature that we use on the public,” Hanner said. “We use common market names such as Sol, but there’s actually twenty different species that can legally be sold as Sol in Canada,” he said.

Through research he conducted with colleagues it was found that up to 41 per cent of the 236 seafood samples were mislabelled nationwide. In many cases less expensive fish were being disguised as a far pricier cut: Pollock standing in for cod, farmed salmon for “wild,” and rockfish for “snapper.”

Food fraud has been prevalent for hundreds of years with some estimating it as a 70 billion dollar a year  industry. And while Canada has yet to face a crisis on the scale of the 2008 melamine baby formula scandal in China, we do face a far more subtle form of fraud. Historically it’s been fueled by consumer apathy and by an industry so large and confusing, most people don’t know where to begin. And according to Sonia Strobel co-owner of Skipper Otto’s a Vancouver based independent fishery, what’s going on with fraud in the Canadian seafood industry is no different than money laundering.

“Certainly you have a lot of fraudulency that comes from such a large scale system because it’s easy to launder fish, to just slip one species in with another. It’s basically money laundering with a living product,” Strobel said. “You end up flooding the market with cheap and illegal seafood which makes it incredibly difficult for those independent families trying to do it right,” she said.

Then there’s the issue of what to do even if you wanted to shop responsibly. An example of this came from Hanner who spoke about the local pickerel fisheries located in and around Lake Erie. “A lot people want to eat something that’s locally harvested but we often find eastern european Zander being sold as pickerel,” he said. Hanner went on to note that it’s fraudulent practices like this that dampen the market prices on seafood and destroy any chance of independent fisheries selling their product at a fair price.

The prevalence of cross species contamination is nothing new when it comes to food. Look no further than this past August, when it was reported that 20 per cent of sausages sampled across the country, contained meat that weren’t on the label. Hanner was also the lead on the study responsible for the eventual reporting.

Both Strobel and Hanner are involved with the open letter hope that at the very least a rise in consumer awareness comes from it, which in turn could put pressure on producing tighter restrictions and government policy on the seafood supply chain. As of Sept. 25, 21 different food professionals and academics have signed their name to the letter and petition.