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Of the olive oils tested, almost 88 per cent were compliant. In the past, the industry has faced criticism about 'extra virgin olive oil' being diluted with cheaper vegetable oils or containing artificial colouring.ANDREW PURCELL/The New York Times News Service

Food fraud remains a major concern in Canada, according to a new report – a problem that runs across grocery store aisles, where, in the case of some products, up to one-third of items are mislabelled.

The report from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency released Thursday offers, for the first time, a comprehensive look at the problem of food fraud in the country. It paints a picture of a complicated and ever-shifting problem – one that can be found across the food supply, and from coast to coast.

From 2020 to 2021, the CFIA undertook a widespread investigation of the five product categories most commonly known for mislabelling: olive oil, honey, spices, fish and “other expensive oils.”

Of the “expensive oils” tested – sesame, coconut, avocado and grapeseed oil, both imported and from domestic producers – 33 per cent were found non-compliant. The report does not specify the nature of the non-compliance, nor whether they were able to assess the actual content of the samples. It does state that expensive oils “are at risk of substitution and dilution with lower quality oils.”

“Food fraud is a tactic that deceives consumers and is unfair to our agriculture and agri-food producers,” federal Agriculture Minister Marie Claude-Bibeau said in a statement. She pointed to the government’s 2019 promise to spend $24-million over five years to fight the problem.

A statement from Food, Health & Consumer Products of Canada, which represents major companies such as Kellogg’s and Nestlé, said it supports the CFIA’s efforts. “Our members take great pride in the safety and quality of their products,” senior vice-president Michi Furuya Chang said. “It is their number one priority.”

The CFIA report focuses mainly on product substitutions (such as products diluted with cheaper ones). But food fraud can also include mislabelling (including inaccurate country of origin, or false claims, such as “organic”). It also includes instances of counterfeit products.

The problem is global. With Canada’s globalized food system – one that relies on long and opaque supply chains – officials have expressed concerns over the years about the complexity of enforcement against such fraud.

One 2020 study by Laval University researchers found that just 33 per cent of Canadian food business owners feel their business is safe from such fraud.

The CFIA’s results from the other categories offer a slightly more positive picture.

Of the olive oils tested, almost 88 per cent were compliant. In the past, the industry has faced criticism about “extra virgin olive oil” being diluted with cheaper vegetable oils or containing artificial colouring.

For honey, 88 per cent of products were compliant. Those that didn’t pass contained foreign sugars, such as sugar cane, corn syrup and rice syrup.

For fish – an industry that has long faced questions about species substitution and transparency of supply chains – 91 per cent of samples passed the test.

The category with the highest pass rate was spices. Of the products tested – including cumin, pepper, cinnamon, paprika and turmeric – almost 93 per cent were deemed satisfactory. And those that didn’t pass the test, according to the report, were “more indicative of cross-contamination than intentional adulteration or substitution.”

Still, the problem is almost certainly worse than the report suggests, said Robert Hanner, a professor of integrative biology at the University of Guelph. Prof. Hanner is Canada’s leading expert on food fraud, and frequently conducts lab tests on mislabelled products.

He said the CFIA study’s relatively small sample size (525) means the results should be “interpreted cautiously.” One of Prof. Hanner’s studies in 2019, for instance, found a much higher rate for mislabelled fish: 32 per cent.

And, given current supply chain problems and record-high food inflation rates, he said, “the problem is likely to worsen going forward.”

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