Who’s minding the store? Health Canada’s regulations at risk

According to Health Canada, “Canadians are informed of and protected from health risks associated with food, products, substances and environments, and are informed of the benefits of healthy eating”.

© Splatp | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

© Splatp | Stock Free Images & Dreamstime Stock Photos

Yet here we have what is considered seafood fraud rampant in restaurants across the country. A fish called escolar masquerades on menus, often as butterfish and in some places, as white tuna.  It happens most often in Japanese restaurants.

In an op-ed I wrote which appeared  in the Ottawa Citizen, Op-Ed: When that tuna isn’t really tuna, I outlined how Canadians are regularly sickened by unknowingly eating escolar and what is being done about it.

Basically the answer is no one is taking any action on the issue.

Because of its effects, escolar is known as a laxative fish.  Health Canada, in a page warning Canadians about this fish, states that it  can contain up   approximately 20% by weight of an indigestible oil.  “This oily substance, gempylotoxin, can cause dramatic, short-lived gastrointestinal responses” including  (sorry to be so graphic) the rectal passage of an oily yellow or orange substance (called keriorrhoea), diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and headache.

While you feel incredibly ill, Health Canada says it won’t kill you so it allows escolar  to be sold. Italy and Japan think otherwise and have banned its sale.

Health Canada states that you need to be careful, though, that you don’t unknowingly eat it. After all, it’s supposed to be properly labelled. That’s the law of the country.


The Food and Drug regulations are supposed to be enforced by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). Herein lies the problem of who is minding the store. The CFIA doesn’t answer to Health Canada. They are under the auspices of the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. And so when escolar is served in restaurants under a different name, the CFIA has decided to do nothing unless you file a complaint.

I don’t know about you but when I have become ill from eating at a restaurant, I have contacted my local public health unit. Contacting the CFIA never even enters my mind. But if you did decide to contact the CFIA, online, under the section Restaurant and food service inspections, it states, “Depending on where you live, concerns or complaints about dirty restaurants, bad food handling practices or the actions of cooks and food servers are handled by local health authorities or designated provincial departments.” It does provide a link to click on which then leads you to the various provincial contacts.

Small wonder the CFIA states that they get no complaints about escolar.

I’ve written about escolar before and have had thousands of hits on my website as people search online using terms such as “butterfish”, “butterfish and diarrhea”, “butterfish sushi” and other related terms.  The number may be rising as restaurant patrons may eat larger amounts as the popularity of all you can eat sushi restaurants rises.
Yet no one contacts the CFIA.  But the agency is well aware of this seafood fraud in restaurants and choose not to enforce the regulations.

While it is understandable that the CFIA would report to the Department of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada when it comes to issues related to agriculture but shouldn’t there be an agency that deals with the enforcement of Health Canada’s Food and Drug Act regulations that answers to Health Canada?

It seems pretty logical, doesn’t it?

But if you have ever eaten butterfish or suspect you may have eaten escolar and experienced its ravages, let the CFIA know. To find out how to file a complaint (easily), I contacted the media relations department of the CFIA and was provided with this contact page where you fill in your details.

Since the CFIA knows full well that this is happening, maybe it’s time we let them know – by filing a complaint- that it’s time for the escolar escapades to stop.


Have you eaten butterfish and suffered any consequences? Please share in the comment section below.

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Categories: Food Safety, Rosie's Rants

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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