Supermarkets are still selling farm-raised salmon, labeled as wild, for premium prices, according to an article published in the August issue of Consumer Reports.
Of 23 wild-labeled salmon fillets purchased from randomly selected supermarkets and fish stores in New York, California, Ohio, Texas and Michigan last November, December and March, only 10 were caught in the wild, according to Geoff Martin, director of consumer sciences for the publication.
The issue seems to be a seasonal one.
"When we performed the experiment in the summertime we ended up with 27 samples and all of them were labeled correctly," he said. "In a way that's not surprising, because summer is wild salmon season and the supply is fairly plentiful."
Aside from a difference in appearance, wild salmon can be scientifically distinguished from farm-raised because farm-raised are fed a coloring agent that gives them their orange-pink color. Wild salmon obtain this color naturally from their diet of crustaceans.
Consumer Reports' experiments weren't the first to uncover this problem.
Last year a New York Times article reported that farm-raised salmon were being sold as wild in six out of the eight New York City specialty stores that it investigated.
Although it's unclear whether the supplier or
retailer was responsible for the mislabeling, industry experts have suggested it's unlikely that supermarkets knowingly misrepresent their products. Instead, transient fish jobbers, who buy in bulk and resell during times of limited supply, could be to blame.
Jack Gridley, meat and seafood director, Dorothy Lane Market, Dayton, Ohio, doesn't believe that retailers are so easily fooled.
"I think [retailers] may be mislabeling salmon in order to make money," he said. "Still, many buyers don't know what they're getting and it's the wholesaler that's to blame."
Country-of-origin labeling rules require that unprocessed seafood sold in retail stores be labeled as "farmed" or "wild."
"A retailer would be fined if they knowingly and willfully violated the COOL regulations," said Deborah White, associate general counsel, regulatory affairs, Food Marketing Institute, Washington. "Suppliers have their own penalty provisions under the statute that are, in fact, more stringent."
Consumer Reports didn't interview seafood managers about their buying practices. The study's sample was too small to draw conclusions about particular retailers.
Wild king salmon can be easily distinguished from its farm-raised counterpart, Gridley said.
"Now the river fish are coming in and they're so nice and beautiful and big and the fat content is there," he explained. "You'll never get that out of the farm-raised salmon."
Despite the source of deception, the burden of proof falls on the retailer, according to Stacey Viera, spokeswoman, National Fisheries Institute, McClean, Va.
"Most seafood suppliers will welcome retailers in and show them how the fish is produced and what quality controls they have in place," she said. "The retailer has to make sure that they're accurately representing the product."
Wild Oats Market, Boulder, Colo., heeds this advice, according to spokeswoman Sonja Tuitele.
"We have relationships with very reputable vendors, fishermen and distributors," she said. "We've visited them and toured their facilities."
Wild Oats sells wild and farm-raised salmon year-round and works with several distributors, said Tuitele, who declined to name them.