Canadian regulators are clamping down on food fraud, a problem that experts say is on the rise across the country.
Although it's difficult to get a sense of how widespread the issue has become, it's a crime that may already be costing Canadians millions of dollars — if not more — every year.
"There's been some indication that this could be a problem worth billions of dollars, but at the end of the day, we just don't know how big it is," explained Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food security at Dalhousie University.
Food fraud can take many forms, but in Canada, the most common type of fraud is what Charlebois called misrepresentation, like when, for example, a product is labelled as organic or locally sourced when it's not. A prime example of mislabelling came in 2015 after the Italian Trade Commission revealed that Canadians annually spent an estimated $3.6 billion — that's billion with a "B" — on phony Italian products. Although less common in Canada, Charlebois said there have also been instances here where food manufacturers will replace a listed ingredient with a cheaper one.
"Other than being misled... there are public health consequences. For example, if people are concerned about allergens or they have any intolerances and the label is inaccurate, it becomes a problem," he noted.
The economic implications for Canada's agriculture and food-processing industries could be significant as well. "A lot of people may think this is a victimless crime, but if you lose the trust of consumers, it's difficult to grow business," Charlebois said. "I would say that's probably the biggest concern right now. There are many food companies out there, but you only need a few bad apples to ruin it for everyone."
The problem hasn't gone unnoticed in Ottawa. One of the largest investigations into food fraud in Canadian history led to charges this past summer against Mucci Farms and a $1.5-million fine. The Ontario greenhouse company was found to be importing produce, including tomatoes from Mexico, and labelling them as products of Canada. Another recent case involved an Ontario farm mislabelling its chicken as organic.
Provincial governments are also beginning to crack down, including in B.C., where a committee was recently formed to look into food fraud.
"B.C. has started to look into this matter a little bit more as a result of how big its fish industry is. The No. 1 category of food that is affected by food fraud is fish and seafood," Charlebois said. Recent studies have discovered that between a quarter and 70 per cent of all seafood products sold in Canada are mislabelled, linked to counterfeiting at some point in the supply chain.
Consumers are not powerless to prevent food fraud. Charlebois said new technologies are being developed in Europe that will help people validate a label's contents.
"This is actually coming up more and more and I suspect that consumers will become empowered by technology, allowing them to become the real police of the supply chain," he added.