Wild-caught Fraudsters: Seafood Mislabeling, Consumer Rights, and Sustainability

Seafood fraud made the news this week when MKG Provisions, a seafood company in Miami, was sentenced in a U.S. Federal Court for labeling farmed salmon from Chile as a “product of Scotland”. The company will be obliged to pay a USD 50 000 fine.

This case highlights the endemic challenge of falsely and mislabeled seafood. Between 25 and 70 percent of seafood products in Canada are “mislabeled due to counterfeiting somewhere along the supply chain”. We are not an aberration from the norm in this regard: on average, 30 percent of seafood products are mislabeled globally. Why so high? As fish markets have globalized so too have the supply chains for fish products, resulting in a “notoriously opaque” system in which weak governance provides a hospitable environment for seafood fraud.

Beyond being a consumer rights issue – if you buy salmon you probably want to know that you are receiving salmon – seafood mislabeling poses challenges for sustainability. An important piece of this puzzle is what’s called “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing” (IUU fishing, for short). IUU fishing is a global governance problem: weak governance systems in some countries, as well as fishing in largely ungoverned international waters, make it exceedingly difficult to regulate sustainable fish stocks.

A recent study estimated the amount of illegal and unreported seafood being produced in 10 top fish producing countries. The good news is that Canada had the lowest proportion of IUU fishing: under 7% of fish caught in Canada is estimated to be illegal or unreported, compared with upwards of one third of total catch in China, Thailand, and Indonesia. The bad news, of course, is that Canada imports a lot of seafood from countries with much worse records. So there is a good chance that the fish you eat is contributing to the depletion of global fish stocks (and maybe even slavery or forced labor).

Eco-labels with traceability standards offer a partial solution to this problem, although seafood mislabeling still happens under such schemes (but it happens a lot less). Of course, private regulation has its limits – accordingly, government-mandated traceability requirements will play an important role as well. For a good summary of traceability standards in the seafood industry, see this report. Finally, better tools are needed. DNA testing has generated research attention since it poses a potential solution to the deficiencies of current traceability best practices. For instance, the MSC published a report on the subject in March. 

15 Years of Marine Stewardship Council Certification: Not So Long, But Thanks for All the Fish!

When purchasing sustainable products most people rely on eco-labels: images posted on packaging that indicate that the producer of that item has adhered to a given set of criteria on the environmental impact of production. Not all eco-labels are alike, however, so it is important to ensure that the one you go by uses third party certification and has rigorous standards. 

When purchasing sustainable seafood there may be several different eco-labels available to you, but the one that is largest and most well-known is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC now accounts for about 10% of global wild caught seafood (as compared to aquaculture/farmed fish) but this proportion is often much higher in developed countries, where the demand for certified fish is higher. In Canada, for example, 67% of domestic wild catch seafood is MSC certified.

See that blue label? That's what MSC certification looks like!

See that blue label? That's what MSC certification looks like!

In addition to being the most widely used eco-label, MSC is also well-known for its rigorous standards (although it has been criticized for focusing too narrowly on the sustainability of fish stocks instead of the overall environmental impact of fisheries and the fish supply chain, as well as for having a process that is too burdensome for small fisheries and fisheries in developing countries). If you are looking for sustainably caught seafood, the MSC is probably your best bet: it is the most likely to actually be available in stores near you and has standards that are reasonably stringent and evaluated impartially, based on evidence. 

The MSC is noteworthy today because it just released its annual report documenting the eco-label's fifteenth year since the first fishery was MSC certified. Some of the highlights from the annual report are included below.

The Highlights of MSC's Annual Report


  • MSC certified 40 new fisheries -- which is pretty good when you consider that a total of 256 fisheries are MSC certified, in 36 countries. There are 34 500 businesses that sell MSC certified products (which came from those certified fisheries) to consumers in 97 countries. 
  • MSC added the first certified fisheries in China and India. Although most MSC certified fisheries exist in developing countries, the MSC emphasized the strides that it has taken to improve accessibility to developing country fisheries. A total of 19 developing country fisheries are certified, with a further 11 in assessment.
  • IKEA committed to sell only MSC certified seafood in all of its stores globally. MSC has previously grown the eco-label by securing similar pledges, for example from Unilever and Walmart.
  • For some species, MSC certification is now the norm: for example, nearly half of whitefish (i.e. cod, haddock, pollock) and just over half of wild-caught salmon is MSC certified.  


  • Lobster certification grew a lot this year, largely because key lobster fisheries in Canada became certified -- 97% of Canadian Atlantic lobster is now MSC certified!
  • MSC also highlighted the strides that the fisheries of the North Atlantic and the Arctic have taken since the 1992 collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery in Newfoundland. Now these fisheries are "world leaders in sustainability and good management", according to MSC.
  • Overall, 73% of Canadian fisheries (by value) are engaged in the MSC process.


  • This year MSC completed its review process of the Fisheries Standard after two years of consultations with experts, NGOs and other actors. 
  • Based on the new Standard, the cumulative impacts that fisheries have on non-target species must be taken into account during fishery assessments. So, if a fishery that catches fish A is sustainable for fish A but creates adverse effects for the population of fish B, that is now something that is taken into account.
  • The Standard introduces new measures to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems like cold water coral. 
  • There is now a clearer MSC policy against forced labor: companies that have been successfully prosecuted for forced labor violations cannot be MSC certified. This was a response to rising public concern about forced labour in the seafood industry, based on US government reporting and media attention on the issue.


  • MSC surveyed 9000 seafood buyers from 15 countries across Europe, Asia, Australasia and North America. 
  • 41% of respondents look for sustainably sourced fish products, up from 36% in 2010. 
  •  33% recognize the MSC label, up from 25% in 2010.


Well, they did, anyway. MSC was part of a campaign led by the World Wildlife Fund UK to celebrate Earth Hour 2015 through #fishface selfies. A brief search of the hashtag now suggests that it is no longer primarily associated with environmental solidarity, however....


  • 75% of MSC revenue came from licensing the eco-label, while most of the rest emanated from donations
  •  Expenditures were split in roughly even proportion between three activities: policy and maintaining the Standard; education and awareness; and fisheries servicing and outreach. 

Not the Only Fish in the Sea, Hopefully: Two Ethical Issues to Consider When Buying Seafood

Contrary to the popular idiom there may not in fact be plenty of fish in the sea. Indeed, overfishing is threatening fish stocks worldwide. Meanwhile, industrial fishing can cause wider ecological damage and forced labour on fishing vessels is an endemic challenge. This week, I discuss two key ethical issues to do with the seafood industry. 

But first, here are some basic facts about the fishing and seafood industry:

The seafood industry is large, and growing, as humans are eating more fish each year. You might be surprised to learn that per capita annual fish consumption has increased from 9.9kg in the 1960s to 19.2kg in 2012. And the average Canadian eats slightly more than this, at 23.1kg.In addition to capturing spectacular worldwide demand, fish is a global industry because it is a highly traded commodity: approximately 200 countries export fish and fishery products. 

This is how the supply chain for fishing typically works:

  1. Fish and shellfish (A) living in open waters or (B) raised via aquaculture in ponds, tanks or bounded coastal waters are harvested.  
  2. They are packed and transported to processing facilities.
  3. Processors convert the fish to consumer products (i.e. canned, frozen, filets, smoked). In some cases processing takes multiple steps while in other fish are transported live.
  4. Wholesalers receive the processed or unprocessed fish and distribute the product to retailers and restaurants.
  5. You buy/eat it.

There are two core ethical issues that you might wish to consider when purchasing seafood – sustainability and human rights – both of which are linked to the problem of illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. These are complicated topics, but I have tried to explain the gist in the sections below.


It is impossible to overstate the importance of sustainability with regards to seafood; 85% of global fish stocks overfished. “Overfishing” refers to a situation when more fish are caught than can be replaced through natural reproduction. It has several causes, including rising demand (we are eating more fish), new technology (makes catching lots of fish easier), and governance gaps (IUU fishing). A study of catch data published in the journal Science in 2006 predicted that if fishing rates continue at the same rate, all the world's fisheries will have collapsed by 2048. The problem of overfishing is so bad that some have argued for giving the oceans their own seat at the United Nations.  

Fun fact: I made this image by photoshopping over Harper's face. 

Fun fact: I made this image by photoshopping over Harper's face. 

The global ocean plays a central role in supporting life on Earth. Oceans cover 3/4 of the planet and contain 80% of all life. Overfishing affects the entire ocean ecosystem. For example, the population of large predatory fish has dropped by an estimated 90% since the industrialization of fisheries in the 1950s.

Overfishing is bad for workers as well as the environment: because fish stocks have been declining, vessels must take longer and longer voyages to find fish, meaning that workers are stuck aboard for long periods of time; declining stocks also make fish processing an increasingly precarious job. You might recall the collapse of the Newfoundland Grand Banks cod fishery in the 1990s: this put between 50 000 and 40 000 people out of work. Fishing is central to the livelihood and food security of an estimated 200 million people. Sustainable fishing matters for the environment, for animals, and for people.

In addition to overfishing, sustainability also concerns the broader environmental impact of fishing processes. For example, if gear is lost during the fishing process or if fishing entails destructive processes, such as the use of dynamite and poisons, this can cause more widespread ecosystem damage. Additionally, some farming processes can cause harm through the spread of farm waste, chemicals, disease and parasites.  

Human Rights

Thailand is the third largest exporter of seafood in the world (the country’s seafood industry is worth $7.3 billion USD annually); it is also notorious for crewing fishing boats with slaves trafficked from Burma and Cambodia. A form of bonded labour is typical: in this scenario, trafficked fishermen are sold to fishing boat owners and then must work to pay off a given price (the ka hua). In addition to being enslaved, workers on such ships are exposed to overwork, violence, torture, and even executions at sea. Each year the U.S. State Department produces its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. In 2014, that report downgraded Thailand to a Tier 3 ranking due to a lack of improvements. The report revealed that the Thai government ignored instances of human trafficking and even sought to punish those attempting to bring these abuses to light.

Thailand is often used as an example of human trafficking in the fishing industry because of the size of its fishing industry and inaction on the part of its government (regulation of the Thai fishing industry is woefully inadequate).

Nonetheless, this is a problem that exists worldwide. While Southeast Asia is the biggest problem region for slavery on fishing vessels, this is a global phenomenon. Human trafficking is endemic in the fishing industry. Some fishing operations in at least 51 countries crew their ships with slave labour. 

To give you an idea of the scope of the human trafficking problem in the fishing industry, I created a table that shows how each of the 10 biggest fish exporting countries (as of 2010) were rated in the 2015 TIP report. Tier 1 countries are those that comply fully with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA), while Tiers 2, 2 Watch List, and 3 are all for out of compliance countries but vary according to the level of effort that a country is putting into stopping human trafficking. As you can see, three of the top 5 fish exporting countries does not comply with the TVPA.

Canadian fish and seafood imports generally match the global trend. The top five countries of origin for our fish and seafood imports are: the U.S. (36.7%), Thailand (14.9%), China (14.6%), Chile (5.1%) and Vietnam (4.6%).

The problem of forced labour on fishing vessels is extremely difficult to tackle, as it is linked to illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing (IUU fishing also goes hand in hand with overfishing).  

IUU Fishing 

IUU fishing is a huge problem: it is estimated that IUU fishing accounts for 30% of all fishing activity worldwide.  Structural loopholes in international maritime law, specifically on the high seas, allow for IUU fishing to proliferate. Outside of a country’s exclusive economic zone (on the “high seas”, which cover 64% of the surface area of the ocean) ships are governed by the laws of the country in which that vessel is registered (the “flag country”). Often, fishing vessels are registered in countries with no meaningful link to their operations. IUU fishing occurs in primarily on the high seas and poorly regulated national waters. For example, along the coastline of sub-Saharan Africa forced labour is a problem on European and Asian fishing vessels in poorly regulated waters.

IUU fishing is a big problem, one that drives overfishing and labour abuses on fishing vessels. As such, it is worth considering how you can avoid being complicit in these ethical challenges. Next week, I’ll explain seafood eco-labeling and offer some practical advice for you when shopping for fish. 

Bad Egg (Labels)

Pictured: the brochure that was thrust into my hands. It does not contain any information about Starbucks' egg sourcing, nor is this information easily available anywhere on the company's website. Starbucks is certainly not alone in this regard.

Pictured: the brochure that was thrust into my hands. It does not contain any information about Starbucks' egg sourcing, nor is this information easily available anywhere on the company's website. Starbucks is certainly not alone in this regard.

A few days ago, I was sipping coffee at Starbucks in the midst of a marathon writing session when, suddenly, I was confronted by a mad case of the hangries. So, I bought an egg wrap that was advertised as ‘cage-free’. Curious, I asked the barista about it: I had heard of free-run and free-range eggs before, but never ‘cage-free’ – and I was a bit wary that this could be like the ‘dolphin-friendly’ tuna labels that sound nice but don’t really mean anything (more on that some other time). Unfortunately, the barista also did not know anything about the ‘cage-free’ title or how Starbucks sources its eggs. She thrust a pamphlet into my hands, hoping that would satisfy me, and understandably moved on to the cue of other customers anxiously awaiting their lattes.

There are a lot of egg labels out there: free-run, free-range, cage-free, and organic – to name a few. What do the labels mean and which is the best? This week, I sought to distinguish good and bad egg labels. 

TL;DR Summary

When it comes to egg labels, there are a lot that mean very little and a few that convey a lot. Farm fresh, all natural, no hormones and no antibiotics egg labels are all meaningless. While Omega-3 eggs and vegetarian fed eggs may be healthier for you, they are not a more ethical choice according to any of the other three values that you might wish to consider (animal welfare, labour rights, and the environment). If you value animal welfare, slightly better choices include cage-free, free-run, and free-range. These are not your best option because they are not independently verifiable, but they are better than no label at all. Finally, Canadian certified organic eggs are a strong choice for animal welfare.

There may be a tradeoff between animal welfare and environmental outcomes, as well as working conditions, as cage-free systems in some cases can worsen each of these. This claim remains contested and probably depends on the specific conditions of different farming systems, unfortunately.  For an environmentally friendly option, try the Land Food People Foundation’s certified local sustainable label.

My go-to egg choice is the PC Organics Free-Run Eggs produced in Canada. Although the free-run label itself isn’t independently verifiable, the Canada organic label assures animal welfare standards.


When you buy eggs, or products with eggs in them, there are at least four related ethical concerns that you may wish to consider: animal cruelty, health, labour rights and the environment. Below, I explain some key considerations of each.

1. Animal Cruelty.

The meat industry in Canada is large, killing approximately 650 million animals each year (most of which are chickens). Although egg farming does not necessarily result in the slaughter of chickens, animal cruelty is perhaps the most well known ethical issue relating to egg farming, especially after the 2013 scandal on Alberta egg farms. Animal cruelty concerns refer to the conditions in which egg laying chickens are kept.

What are the laws on animal cruelty on Canadian farms? First, there is a general prohibition on animal cruelty: the Criminal Code of Canada (s.446) prohibits anyone from willfully causing animals to suffer from neglect, pain or injury. However, these generalized cruelty laws were not made to regulate farming specifically and are only rarely used to prosecute livestock producers, in cases of particularly egregious abuse. There are two other federal laws pertaining to animal cruelty on farms, relating only to very specific circumstances: during transport and slaughter. The Health of Animals Act includes measures to protect animals from undue suffering during transport and loading, while the Meat Inspection Act protects food animals from undue harm during handling and slaughter.

Provinces and territories have the primary responsibility for protecting the welfare of animals (including farm animals) and have enacted animal welfare laws as well as groups to enforce these laws (usually, the province’s SPCA and Ministry of Agriculture inspectors). However, enforcement is drastically underfunded and understaffed, which means that very few farms are actually inspected. For a good briefing on animal cruelty law on Canadian farms, click here.

An estimated 95% to 98% of eggs produced in Canada and the U.S. come from hens in ‘battery cages’ (the tiny cages you see in animal cruelty videos). Generally, if you don’t see a label stating otherwise you can assume that the eggs were probably from battery cages. The main egg labels pertaining to animal cruelty are cage-free, free-run, free-range, and some certified organic labels. (More on this below)

2. Health.

Another issue that you might consider prioritizing when you choose which eggs to buy relates to your own health. As such, some egg producers advertise production choices that might not be better for the chicken but can be better for you. For example, some eggs are now Omega-3 enriched. Another example is the ‘vegetarian-fed’ eggs, which essentially just means that the chickens are not fed ‘wasted protein’. This might not mean that the chicken lives in better conditions, but it is arguably safer for you to consume.

Like other foods, some eggs are certified as organic. Some people eat organic eggs to minimize risk of exposure to antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or pesticides. Are organic eggs really healthier? Evidence is mixed. For example, one source suggests that there isn’t much of a difference, while another suggests that organic eggs usually have higher nutrient quality

3. Labour rights.

If you’re a John Oliver fan like I am, you’ll remember his coverage of labour violations in the U.S. chicken farming industry. In other horrific labour news, police recently broke up a slave-labor ring in Ohio farm, where teenagers were forced to work on egg farms.

What about Canadian eh-ggs?

Some fun facts about the Canadian egg farming industry (in 2013):

  • There were 1 021 registered egg farms in Canada, over a third of which are in Ontario.
  • The average flock size was 2 255 hens (although the size of egg farms ranges from a few hundred to more than 400 000 hens!) 
  • The average hen produces 305 eggs per year (which means that the average egg farm produces 687 775 eggs per year!)

Canada has a supply management system for its egg farming (which includes production management, import controls, and pricing mechanisms). Check out the Egg Farmers of Canada website for market information such as reports on egg prices, production, and imports. Through this supply management system, Canadian egg farmers are guaranteed a fair price for their eggs – although a downside of supply management schemes is that this jacks up the price for consumers. I wasn’t able to find stats for egg production specifically but, as an example, the average Canadian household spends an extra $100 on dairy products each year due to dairy quotas. So, supply management has its downsides (even though the Canadian Egg Farmers claim that the main effect of supply management is to handle price volatility, which is a fair point).

There does not seem to be the same level of abuses occurring on Canadian egg farms. From my scan of the Internet, it seems that there are two main concerns. First, many farms include unpaid family workers (children from the family). In Alberta, there was some debate over whether these workers should be eligible for Workers’ Compensation. Second, farm workers are paid below average wages, around $10 000 annually (although these stats should be viewed with caution, as this is often for part-time or seasonal work). In any event, labour rights issues on Canadian egg farms seem benign, relative to our American neighbours. As such, you may wish to stick with Canadian eggs. You can usually find a little maple leaf on the package to indicate that your eggs are Canadian.

Lastly, cage-free/free-run systems may expose labourers to more pollutants in some instances, posing a potential tradeoff between labour rights and animal welfare.

4. The environment.

Finally, you may want to consider the environment in your egg buying choices - although there is less out there on the environmental impact of egg farming. Indeed, there is a key dilemma at play: what’s best for the environment may not be best for the chicken. Industrial farming has led to fewer greenhouse gas emissions despite growing egg production; this has been made possible by effective manure management and improved feed efficiency, which is easiest with battery cages. However, if cage-free systems are able to manage urine and feces effectively and if fewer chickens die prematurely this may be better for the environment. The overall impact is unclear, to my mind.

There are sustainable options out there – although it seems the emphasis in big labeling schemes has been on health and animal welfare. Certified local sustainable is an independently verified Canadian egg labeling scheme which targets sustainable farming practices.

There are a couple of cool environmental initiatives in the Canadian egg industry. In February 2014, the Egg Farmers of Alberta launched PEEP – the Producer Environmental Egg Program – to help egg farmers better identify their impact on the environment. Check out its first report. Also in 2014, the Egg Farmers of Canada entered into a partnership with green energy provider Bullfrog Power for its offices (actually, EFC has been internationally recognized for its socially responsible initiatives).


What do egg labels really mean?

Bad Egg Labels

Watch out for misleading labels. Some labels, such as ‘farm fresh’, ‘omega-3’ and ‘fed vegetarian feed’, do not indicate anything about animal welfare. As such, the Vancouver Humane Society has called them ‘misleading’. Misleading labels include:

  • Farm fresh: this label is, in practical terms, meaningless. It conveys no information about the production process.
  • All natural: this label also has no real meaning.
  • Animal friendly, country fresh, naturally raised: these, too, do not guarantee any type of production standard.
  • No antibiotics: antibiotics are very rarely used in the egg industry anyway, so this label does not indicate much.
  • No hormones: in Canada, hormones are only approved for use in cows, so this label does not mean anything if you are purchasing eggs.

Some labels do have a specific meaning – they aren’t ‘misleading’ – but they also don’t indicate ethical production practices and as such are included here as bad egg labels.

  • Omega-3: this means that the egg is enriched with Omega-3 – healthier for you, but not more humane or environmentally friendly.
  • Vegetarian-fed: the chicken was not fed wasted protein – healthier for you, but not more humane or environmentally friendly. 

Better Egg Labels

These ‘better egg labels’ mean that the producer claims to meet certain animal welfare standards in their farming practices. With these labels, there is no independent verification (although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has set guidelines defining what these mean and could investigate a farm that does not meet this definition, if a complaint is made). So, while these labels are a step up from the bad egg labels they are still not an ideal choice:

  • Cage-free: the eggs from cage-free farms do not put hens in the battery cages in which almost all egg laying hens are kept. So, it’s a step up! But cage-free can still mean that the birds live in crowded aviaries, which may not give them much more space.  (To tie this in with the introductory bit, I’ll note that the move to ‘cage-free’ eggs by Starbucks is part of a broader shift in its animal welfare policy).
  • Free-run: similar to cage-free labels, this means that the hens run free in an ‘open concept’ barn (no cages).
  • Free-range: this is similar to free-run eggs, but it also means the chickens can go outdoors.

Best Egg Labels

These are the only labels that are independently verified to meet clear ethical production standards:

  • Canada Organic: organic products in Canada must be certified according to Canadian Organic Standards and Regulations. Under these regulations, battery cages are prohibited, there are minimum space requirements, access to the outdoors is required, and certain amenities for chicken welfare (such as nest boxes, perches, and bedding material) are required. There is also an array of other requirements – for example, GMOs are not permitted under the standards, nor are synthetic pesticides or irradiation. The David Suzuki Foundation recognizes this as the best choice.
  • There are a number of other organic certifications, each of which has different standards. Before you buy, you should research organics standards to see what its standards are. As an example, the USDA National Organic Program is similar to the Canada organic label. These eggs come from cage-free hens fed organic feed. Notably, this does not include labour standards.
  • SPCA Certified: this program independently verifies similar animal welfare standards as with the organics label. However, it does not require the use of organic feed (and some other requirements).
  • Certified local sustainable: a small (and relatively new) certification scheme run by Local Food Plus, this label encompasses sustainable farming practices and actions toward greenhouse gas emissions reduction in its standards. If you can find a retailer with this label, it is a good environmental option.