Friday, February 22, 2013

Where does this come from?

It takes me longer than ever to get the weekly grocery shopping done. The delay isn't due to line-ups or slow cashiers; it's really my own fault that I move through the supermarket at a snail's pace.  In an effort to eat locally-grown (or at least Canadian) produce, meat and fish, I am obliged to read the fine print on every package and in-store label to determine the point of origin before adding an item to my cart. It's not easy being a conscientious consumer and it's almost impossible to be a speedy one.

I have no trouble finding a bag of potatoes from PEI, apples from Nova Scotia and oatmeal from NB. Of all the items on my list, seafood should be a simple, natural choice given that here on the east coast of Canada fishing is a mainstay occupation and fish processing plants abound.  The seafood section at Sobeys offers a wide range of fresh and frozen selections but - buyer beware - the waters are murky when it comes to fish mongering.

"Atlantic Salmon" the label reads on a package of frozen fillets.   A closer inspection reveals "Product of Chile" printed discreetly on the back of the bag.  I have been to Chile and know that its coastline is located on the Pacific ocean. Something's fishy here.

The fish manager explains that "Atlantic Salmon" refers to the species raised in fish farms in Chile.  I thank him for that bit of information, put the bag back in the freezer and move on.

High Liner is a well-known Canadian seafood processor based in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia whose distinctly North American style of packaging features a jaunty, white-bearded captain who exudes an air of confidence.   I'm disappointed to find "Product of China" marked on the haddock box along with a logo that claims the fish is  "Responsibly Sourced".  A man who is busy stocking the shelves nearby sees me scanning the labels and asks if I need some help.  He happens to be the High Liner representative, and is gracious enough to answer my questions about this brand of fish products.
Captain High Liner

"These haddock are not caught in China," he says, "they're actually fish from Canadian waters that our company has processed at a plant in China.  We have to label them as "Product of China" because that's the law."  He assures me that the Chinese processing plant is "super clean" and frequented by Canadian inspectors, but this is beside the point.

It seems odd that a genuine Canadian fish is disguised as Chinese and a Chilean one is marketed under a species name that suggests it's one of our own.  A wave of scepticism washes over me and  I leave the store without buying salmon or haddock, mussels or scallops.  I fail to support the local fishermen because there's no clarity of offer among "les fruits de mer."

The whole issue of which fish to purchase seems a trivial pursuit after listening to the CBC report by Alanna Mitchell entitled "Oceans of Plastic."  The Toronto-based science writer has extensively researched the levels of plastic pollution in the world's oceans.  She reports that sea creatures are not only drowning in synthetic polymers, they're ingesting and retaining millions of microscopic plastic particles in their cells.  When we eat seafood, we take in a range of toxins that originated in man-made clothing fibres, cosmetics, sanitary products and other garbage that has accumulated in the ocean over the last sixty years.  There is no known method for ridding the seas of this waste material, as plastic can only be broken down under high heat incineration.   As Mitchell points out, "It's immortal."

I now realize that it doesn't matter if the fish you buy comes from China, Canada, South America, Europe, Africa, India, Australia or the Antarctic:  all of the oceans on this planet contain massive amounts of visible and invisible plastic particles that are not fit for human consumption.   There is no place for marine life to hide as the gyres of garbage continue to expand and micro particles outnumber plankton.

Goodbye sushi
My shopping trips are shorter now, as I skip the seafood section altogether.