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April 11, 2005

Fishy Salmon

Along with many other northwesterners, I cringed when I saw the New York Times story that Manhattan markets were selling farmed salmon labeled as wild—a practice that apparently is not unique to New York. (A consumer affairs expert referred to it as “improperly baiting customers.”)

Tests performed for The New York Times in March on salmon sold as wild by eight New York City stores, going for as much as $29 a pound, showed that the fish at six of the eight were farm raised. Farmed salmon, available year round, sells for $5 to $12 a pound in the city.

Since farmed salmon are fed artificial coloring to make them look pink, even experts have a tough time telling the difference by appearance alone.  Taste may be a different story.  But by then it’s too late. Store officials, meanwhile, had any number of excuses. My favorite is the one who said his sales clerks "must have gotten the salmon from the wrong pile in the back."

It might seem a little odd that the Times is sending reporters to investigate salmon fraud. I see it as a positive sign, testament to growing demand for information about the “secret lives” of consumer products—how they’re produced, what’s been added to them, and what the environmental and health impacts are. Farmed salmon, for example, have been shown to contain more PCBs and other toxics than wild salmon.

One recent win for consumers is a new eco-labeling law for fish, requiring that markets carry information on where certain seafood originated, and whether it was wild-caught or farm-raised. But the law only applies to full-service markets, not to fish markets. So, unfortunately, it's still up to consumers to remember that when they see “fresh, wild salmon" advertised in the store, it might just be a fish story.

Posted by Elisa Murray | Permalink


I read the article too.

I was a bit surprised at the inability to tell farmed from wild salmon by visual inspection.

Correct me if I'm wrong about this. But I thought most if not all farm raised salmon were Atlantic salmon whereas all wild salmon from the Pacific are one of the five species of Pacific salmon. Atlantic salmon should be visually identifiable from Pacfic salmon species by visual inspection, even without the heads, simply by inspecting the spot patterns.

If I recall correctly from my days as a fisheries observer, Atlantic salmon have spots on the side that are both above and below the lateral line. Sockeye and chum salmon have no spots. Pink, Coho, and Chinook salmon have spots but only above the lateral line.

That doesn't take away from the disturbing nature of the NYT story, but informed consumers should be able to identify salmon species in the market.

Posted by: Kent | Apr 11, 2005 1:52:27 PM

You're right that there's no commercial harvest of wild Atlantic salmon (at least on this side of "the pond"--there's still some small harvest in Ireland, Greenland, and the UK). But I did a little Googling and found evidence that Pacific salmon is--at least sometimes--also farm raised. I too, had been under the impression that only Atlantic salmon was used in aquaculture, but this appears to not be true.

As for telling the species apart by sight, it's a great idea for inspectors. An expert should be able to distinguish them, I believe. (But speaking as an occasional sport fisherman, I doubt general consumers will ever get to a level of confidence in their observations that they would trust themselves over the labelling. I, for one, would doubt myself. Not only are there five species of Pacific salmon, but their markings change substantially over their lifetimes and in some cases resemble Atlantic markings.)

Another interesting twist: not all Pacific salmon are from the Pacific. The Great Lakes have artificial but sustaining salmon runs of Chinook and other species. So it's possible to catch wild "Pacific" salmon in upstate New York.

Posted by: Eric | Apr 11, 2005 2:18:50 PM

Perhaps you're right about consumers. Not everyone handles fish for a living.

However any experienced inspector or buyer should be able to identify salmon at a glance. You just learn to read the clues intuitively.

The problem, I think, with fish is that they are marketed through such a tangled web of small independent fishmarkets and dealers. That's good I suppose in that the industry is still diverse as compared to say poultry. But on the other hand, too many small actors means that this sort of fraud is more likely.

This same sort of fraudulent mis-labeling would be much more difficult to pull off in a vertically integrated industry like the poultry industry. Not because Con-Agra or Tyson are better corporate citizens. But because the risk is so much greater for a large firm, and it's much more difficult to plead ignorance or mistakes when you control all the steps in the process from production to market

Posted by: Kent | Apr 12, 2005 5:59:10 AM

It is often easy to tell farmed from wild salmon

1) the fins on farmed salmon, in partucular the tail fin, more often than not will show signs of wear and will in fact be less pointed. Instead the tails will be rounded.

2) It is often easy to tell by looking at the meat. Farmed salmon is fed a high fat diet and more often than not you can see definite white fat lines between the muscle segments. Wild salmon will have a light patch, but in general farmed salmon meat has a more orange colour and will exhibit a clear white fat line.

Posted by: fraser | Apr 12, 2005 11:10:19 AM