In a blistering article in The New York Times last week, writer Marian Burros uncovered a practice in the seafood industry that many insist is simply fraud: Salmon sold as wild is actually farm-raised in many instances. The mislabeling is not necessarily an indictment of retailers, however.
According to Burros, tests proved that in six of eight stores, their "wild" salmon, selling for as much as $29 a pound, was actually farm-raised. Burros' suspicions were raised initially by the abundance of "wild" salmon in the off-season. Typically, wild salmon is available from May through November.
"I think it totally boils down to who you do business with," said Henry Lovejoy, president of EcoFish, a distributor of sustainably fished seafood. "You need to find a reputable dealer or distributor that preferably has their own procurement network. Where you start losing track of the origin of the product is when you start dealing with people who aren't sourcing directly from the origin."
Lovejoy recommended that retailers ask lots of questions of their distributors. "Determine if the distributor who is selling that [salmon] to you is sourcing it from Alaska." He noted that "there's no such thing as wild Atlantic salmon," so for most of the United States, wild salmon must be sourced from the Pacific Northwest, and that the entire Alaskan fishery is certified wild and sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council.
Some retailers, however, don't believe the liability lies completely with the distributor either. "I honestly don't think it's their fault," said Sonja Tuitele, a spokeswoman for Wild Oats Markets. "I think it was haphazardly labeling their product—not maliciously—just sloppy labeling," she said, noting that product may get mixed together when a large shipment comes in. "We train our employees to make sure they cross-reference" the record of traceability and the invoice listing the origin and species of the fish, Tuitele said.
Both Tuitele and Lovejoy said that the country-of-origin-labeling law that became effective earlier this month for seafood should help considerably. Tuitele said that before COOL was implemented, Wild Oats required its suppliers to provide a record of traceability. Now, that information isn't limited to retailers with a certain amount of clout. "It's great because all retailers can trace the origin," Tuitele said. Another requirement retailers can insist on, she said, is that the supplier or distributor test the fish for astaxanthin (a natural pigmentation that's often added to the feed of farmed fish) and provide the results to the retailer. "Certain levels of astaxanthin would tell you that it's farmed versus wild," she said.
There are visual clues to the origin as well. "Farmed salmon tends to be a little brighter red," said Lovejoy. In addition, he said, there are fat rings in salmon that are akin to growth rings in trees. "In farmed salmon the fat between the flakes is much thicker."
"It's not that difficult to a trained eye to detect the difference," Lovejoy said.