What in the World is Fish & Chips?
The students in Genetics 211 were studying some fairly abstract concepts last semester. “It’s hard to see and touch DNA,” Professor Matthew Morris explains. “You have these letters and base pairs, but what does that actually mean?”
So Morris, Assistant Professor of Biology at Ambrose University and a fish aficionado with a specialty in genetics, arranged an opportunity for his students to conduct original research while applying their learning to a relevant issue right here in Calgary: fish fraud.
Fish fraud occurs when vendors put the wrong name on the fish they are selling. In many cases it isn’t intentional, but it’s still a serious problem in Canada.
“The fish mislabelling controversy is a critical issue that threatens consumer confidence and calls into question the integrity of the food industry,” student Erin Wiberg explains. “When researchers in the academic community investigate, we help hold the industry accountable.”
Working in partnership with a Molecular Ecology class at the University of Calgary, Ambrose students spread out across the city to find out for themselves whether mislabelling is something to be concerned about in our community. Students collected fish samples from sushi vendors, restaurants and fish markets, took photographs of the labels and had the DNA sequenced by the University of Guelph. And when they received the DNA results, they discovered there was indeed something fishy going on.
The study revealed that 23% of samples were illegally mislabelled under Canadian Food Inspection Agency guidelines, a rate that’s slightly lower than the national average of 25-30%, but still worthy of concern.
The U of C conducted a similar study in 2014, but this year’s partnership between the U of C and Ambrose tripled the sample size, making it the largest and most reliable study in Calgary to date.
One of these things is not like the other
Some noteworthy examples of mislabeled products included:
Rainbow trout sold as salmon
Professor Morris explains, “when you flood the market with what people believe is wild salmon, but it’s actually rainbow trout, consumers are led to believe that salmon are doing better than they actually are.”
Tilapia sold as red snapper
This is another case where mislabelling hurts conservation efforts. Red snapper are a marine-caught, wild fish. Their populations are vulnerable to extinction, but the market is flooded with fish mislabelled under their name, again, creating the impression that they are doing just fine.
“Every instance of snapper that we sampled was not actually a snapper,” says Morris. “It was either tilapia (which is a freshwater domesticated fish) or some other species of rock fish.”
Iridescent shark sold as cuttlefish
Conservation wasn’t as much of an issue here, but what a contrast! Fun fact: An iridescent shark is a fish but the misleadingly named cuttlefish is actually a mollusk.
Consequences of mislabelling
Inaccurate labelling can have a variety of negative consequences. There can be health risks related to allergies as well as unfair costs to the consumer when a cheaper fish is mistaken for one that is typically more expensive. “That’s the case with red snapper and tilapia,” says Morris. “Tilapia is generally cheaper than red snapper so when you pay for red snapper but the fish is actually tilapia you’re getting ripped off.”
Another cause for concern is species conservation. This last point was especially important to the Ambrose class, as they considered their moral responsibility to care for other species. “Being informed about issues like this is crucial to maintaining the standard of stewardship that I believe we are called to as Christians," says student Kristen Limacher.
More precise labelling could help at-risk fish populations
So what can be done to help the food industry steward diversity among fish? One finding from this study suggests a way forward. Students observed that most mislabeling happened when fish were labelled with a legally permissible but imprecise name.
When the original label named a specific species, there was a 90% rate of accuracy, compared to a 60% rate of accuracy for samples labelled more vaguely. “This finding raises concern regarding what is considered illegal labelling in Canada,” Morris says, explaining that current laws don’t always require the use of a precise species name.
He gives this example: “As a consumer you can buy something called ‘cod,’ and legally, the vendor doesn’t have to tell you if it’s Atlantic cod or Pacific cod. Pacific cod are doing just fine, but Atlantic cod collapsed in the 90s – it’s the single greatest loss of a vertebrate in Canadian history! But you can still buy Atlantic cod as ‘cod,’ not knowing that you will be eating a fish at the point of local extinction.”
What in the world is ‘fish and chips’?
Morris comments that the lack of precision in our law connects to a broader tendency to think of fish only as a class and not as individual species. “You can order ‘fish and chips’ at a restaurant, but you’d never see a ‘mammal sandwich’ or ‘bird salad’ on the menu,” he points out. “You’d want to know exactly what species is going into your meal—whether it was a sheep or a cow, a duck or a chicken.”
“There are actually more species of fish on the planet than there are any other types of vertebrates (mammals and birds included). We’re in the tens of thousands with species of fish, so what in the world is a ‘fish and chips’?! I don’t think people realize, but ‘fish and chips’ have actually changed species multiple times because we fish down a certain species and then have to find a replacement,” he adds.
The tendency to lump all fish into a generic category and lose sight of their diversity partly stems from the fact that we don’t have as much in common with them as we do with land-dwelling creatures. It’s harder to imagine a fish’s context and empathize with its experiences. But as someone who studies fish daily, Morris is filled with wonder and respect for the way they make their way in the world: “If we understood fish more, we’d care more. They have amazing parental systems and life history strategies.”
Research paves the way for a more responsible industry
The study Morris and his students conducted has given them a deeper appreciation of what it means to be informed consumers, and they hope it will make a practical difference to the industry too. Everything they learned during their investigation was entered into an online database, which means their work will contribute to future knowledge on mislabeling rates.
“Our hope is to build up a multi-year database specific to Calgary,” Morris says. “As legislation is put into place to combat fish fraud over the next decade, we can see if it is having any consequences on the ground, because we can compare the datasets we are developing now with the dataset after the legislation has been put into place.”