Got dye? That's likely to be the next catchphrase on consumers' lips, once they discover the differences between wild and farm-raised salmon. And that could hit retailers right in the pocketbook.
Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons found that out recently, when Seattle-based Smith & Lowney filed suits against each of them. The suits contend that the supermarkets committed economic fraud by selling salmon that they knew had been dyed, without informing consumers. "People who bought artificially colored salmon wouldn't have purchased it or wouldn't have paid as much," said Paul Kampmeier, an attorney with Seattle-based Smith & Lowney.
Indeed, market research has shown that consumers rely on color to assess the freshness and quality of salmon, and are willing to pay more for deeply colored fish. But farm-bred salmon—which accounts for 95 percent of Atlantic salmon—is naturally gray. Wild salmon, on the other hand, derives its familiar pink hue from its diet of small crustaceans. So salmon farmers add a dye to their fish feed mix, making it indistinguishable from wild salmon and more appealing to consumers.
Many consumers, however, seek to avoid farm-raised salmon because of concerns about its exposure to antibiotics and PCBs, its higher fat content and its lower omega-3 profile. Research also suggests that canthaxanthin, the most common colorant, may cause an accumulation of pigments in the retina, resulting in impaired vision.
Moreover, failing to label the salmon as artificially colored violates federal law, according to the suits.
All three supermarket chains have already capitulated and agreed to place "color added" labels on or near their packaging of farmed salmon. That won't stop the lawsuit, though. "The change in labeling validates our claims," Kampmeier said.
Wild Oats sees it differently. Salmon coming from the supplier was appropriately labeled, said Mary Mulry, senior director of product development and standards at the Boulder, Colo.-based natural foods chain. "There was just a lack of understanding by the retailers that they needed to label it at the point of sale." Mulry said it's odd for the Food and Drug Administration to require color-added labeling when color is added to the diet, not directly to the flesh. Chickens, for example, are fed marigold extract to color the flesh and egg yolks, but to Mulry's knowledge there are no similar labeling requirements for poultry. Now that the retailers are aware of the salmon-labeling requirement, she said, "we've been hurriedly trying to get the language together." Mulry said the chain hopes to not only inform consumers that color has been added but also to give them an understanding of what the coloring is.
Still, Kampmeier said, consumers who were damaged have a right to some remuneration by the court. He said damages could be "in the millions or tens of millions" of dollars, based on the number of consumers affected.
But that doesn't mean that smaller retailers are next on the hit list. Kampmeier said Smith & Lowney's clients approached the firm, not the other way around. "I don't want to have to go knocking on every grocery store's door," he said. "Our hope is that they will take notice and make sure they're in compliance with state and federal laws."