The frozen skipjack tuna that Star-Kist Canada Inc. imports to its plant in St. Andrews, N.B., comes from as far away as Mexico and Malaysia. It is packed in cans which carry roughly 12 different brand names, including Star-Kist, Bye the Sea, Captain’s Pantry and Cloverleaf. But before the cans leave the plant—at the rate of 750,000 each week—inspectors from the federal department of fisheries and
oceans (DFO) open random cans for what they call “subjective quality testing.” Fisheries Minister John Fraser, at the urging of New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield, cast doubt on the adequacy of that process when he overturned his own inspectors’ finding that more than one million cans of tuna from Star-Kist were unfit for human consumption and ordered them released last April. And, indeed, many industry observers are also skeptical about the subjective testing methods. Declared Thomas Gill, professor of food science at the Technical University of Nova Scotia in Halifax: “One man’s idea of putrid may be someone else’s idea of acceptable.”
Federal tuna inspections begin at the wharf where the fish arrive. But DFO officials told Maclean 's that only a few of the fish from the catch that went into the cans now in question were rejected there. The cans also passed routine checks for sterility or the presence of such toxic
compounds as mercury. Inspectors finally rejected the fish after the crucial “organoleptic” inspectionlooking at, smelling, feeling and tasting the canned tuna.
Inspectors divide fish into two categories: “acceptable” or “unfit for human consumption.” Fish is rejected either because it is decomposed, which regulations define as “fish that has an offensive or objectionable odor, flavor, color,
texture or substance associated with spoilage,” or because it is tainted—“fish that is rancid or has an abnormal color or flavor.” The process depends heavily on the judgment of individual inspectors. Gerald Bridden, fish inspection specialist with the DFO in Ottawa, said that fish inspectors attend meetings, “like wine-tastings,” to synchronize their palates. But, said Bridden, “I have seen fish rejected in one region, and reinspected in another region—and released.”
Gill said that scientific chemical tests could be used to determine freshness. But he added that the DFO cancelled funds for his research into scientific fish inspection last fall. And despite recent DFO initiatives to begin grading all fish and to make the description of acceptable canned tuna more precise, organoleptic testing will remain central to all future inspections.
—CHRIS WOOD in Halifax with KATHRYN HARLEY in Fredericton
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