Monday, October 4, 2010

Where does our fish come from? A quick look at the origins of fish in Canadian stores, PART 1 of 2

Canada is a multicultural country with a rich fishing heritage, particularly in highly coastal areas like many in Canada’s eastern-most province, Newfoundland and Labrador (which just happens to be where I’m currently located.)

These days, consumers group, are becoming more and more interested in knowing both where their food has come from, and the sustainability implications of its production.

It’s something that interests me, so a friend and I decided to head into several stores in our city, St. John’s, to do some detective work…Are local stores are responding to the push towards accountability and traceability that seems to be taking place? We wanted to find out.

Two brands dominate the supermarket scene in St. John’s— Sobey’s, with six locations, and Dominion (part of the Loblaws chain, Canada’s biggest), with 3 stores.

We visited one Sobeys, and one Dominion. Both stores had a selection of fish, including fresh fish, frozen fish and processed fish products, ranging from nuggets and burgers to pickled, smoked and canned items.

Taking a look at the packaging, we quickly noticed a couple of things about the origin of the products:
  • The vast majority of the shrimp products were imported from areas with large-scale shrimp aquaculture operations, including Thailand, Ecuador and India.
  •  Most of the fish caught in North America (cod and salmon) was sent to China for packaging, then brought all the way back to be sold.
  •  Most of the North American products we found were processed fish and aquaculture-grown shellfish.
  • Both stores had fresh, locally-caught or produced cod and Atlantic salmon for sale.
We also talked to store employees, asking them about the origins of the fish they were selling; however, we didn’t find the workers all that knowledgeable about either the products, or their origins.

So, what does it mean? We made a couple of quick conclusions from what we saw.

First, our visit confirmed our suspicion that many consumers, including ourselves, have very little awareness of the origin of the fish we eat. The same goes for the employees in the stores—obviously, it isn’t seen as a training priority for staff.

Second, despite the significant role played by fishing activity in development of St. John's, and the province of Newfoundland and Labrador as a whole, the fresh fish available at supermarkets is very limited. 

Third, we noticed the lack of information about the characteristics of fish products, the sort of processing method used, or the conditions under which it was captured. Even asking an employee a question isn’t likely to lead to answers.

Next post, we visit an independent fish seller in St. John’s to see if they can tell us more about where our dinner is coming from…Stay tuned!

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