When 70% of the seafood we eat is imported and not properly labelled, the Australian government needs to act

Matthew Evans. Photo: Alan Benson

I live not far from the water. Water in which you can catch flathead, that iconic Australian fish that most of us have pulled in on a line since we were kids.

And yet the two nearest takeaways to me that sell “flathead” don’t sell anything from those waters. Instead, the so-called flathead should, by rights, be called “Argentinian stickfish” (the scientific name is percophis brasiliensis) if it was labelled accurately.

Now, the fact so many takeaways sell imported fish and rebrand it using misleading names was news to me a couple of years back, and it’s still news to most people.

In fact, studies suggest nearly 3/4 of people assume seafood sold in Australian restaurants, cafes and takeaways is local. They assume that if it’s not from the body of water closest to the diner, then at least it’s Australian. And a loophole in the law allows those who have something to hide to keep it that way.

Despite local fishers, markets, importers and wholesalers being required to have accurate fish names and to give the origins of their seafood, the hospitality industry doesn’t. They can be sneaky and make up names for fish. They can call anything “fish” when you can’t simply call any warm-blooded animal flesh “mammal” or feathered animal “bird”.

They can obscure the origins of the seafood they use because the law, as it stands, exempts what’s known as ready-to-eat seafood – any seafood cooked and sold outside the home.

Some may know this already. I’ve spent more than two years of lobbying, agitating, hearing the stories from local fishers about how their seafood can’t compete with mislabelled and misrepresented products, and trying to get legislative change so we, as consumers, can know exactly what seafood is on our plates.

But the Australian Senate is unmoved. I’m not against imports, but I do care about the food I put in my mouth, and the first step in that process is to be told what you’re eating. Certified sustainable fisheries, and those with a good news story from anywhere in the world, should welcome consumers being informed.

Yes, we did help get a Senate Committee to look into seafood labelling. Yes, the committee did recommend country of origin labelling be extended to all seafood sold in Australia. And yes, I’ve met so many responsible professional fishers who have been so excited that the regulations they meet – to properly sort, label and record their catch accurately – could be passed on to the consumer.

But last week, the Australian Senate knocked back a bill put up by South Australian senator Nick Xenophon to transform the labelling of ready-to-eat seafood: the fish at your takeaway or sushi joint, the prawns on your pizza.

Some fish labelled as ‘flathead’ in Australia actually comes from South America. Source: Quoy & Gaimard, 1825.

So, restaurants, cafes, bistros and takeaways can still call any fish simply “fish”, and not say exactly what it is. Or make up a name, and get away with it. Or call Argentinian stickfish “flathead”, even though it’s no relation of flathead, and do it with impunity.

When I sent a list of questions to Senator Richard Colbeck, parliamentary secretary to the minister for agriculture, who represents not just me as a Tasmanian, but the entire fishing industry in Australia, his response was less than emphatic. I didn’t even receive a form letter. In fact, I’ve yet to receive any response at all.

I know most consumers would like to know where their fish is from, even if they have someone else cook it.

They’d like to know what they’re putting in their mouths. Evidence from the NT has shown seafood sales skyrocketed when the Territory government brought in country of origin labelling for seafood in restaurants. And profits also soared.

I’ve been on the fishing boats. I’ve seen environmental pillaging. I’ve witnessed the great, the good, and the awful. I really want to know how my seafood was produced or caught, and I know some of you do too. And the first step in that journey is to be told what’s on the plate.

Not knowing is bad for the environment. It’s bad for the consumer and it’s bad for those responsible fishers who do the right thing, both here and abroad.

I’ve fought for legislative change, because the voluntary system of labelling seafood has failed. Laws are there to protect us from the shonks and charlatans, not from the good and noble. But for now, thanks to both our major parties (who ignored the advice of their own committee), we are still at the mercy of those who have something to hide, not something to share.

The public expect more. The seafood industry expect more. But until we see real change and accurate labelling, ready-to-eat seafood will continue to be a little fishy.

If you expect more, sign this Change.org petition I’ve started calling on the Australian Parliament to amend the legislation to mandate the use of proper fish names, and country of origin for all seafood sold in Australia.

* Matthew Evans is a former restaurant critic who moved to Tasmania to try his hand at farming, a career change that featured in the SBS series Gourmet Farmer. He’s written several books and the TV series What’s the catch, about the truth behind Australian seafood and what we should be eating and why.

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