Supermarket seafood departments might be feeling a little queasy over a recent high-profile study that advised consumers to cut back their consumption of farm-raised salmon.
The scientific review analyzed contaminants in salmon, and found that levels of polychlorinated biphenyls and other toxic substances in farmed Atlantic salmon were far higher than in wild species. The authors of the study, a group of university scientists, recommended consumers limit the amount of farmed salmon they eat to no more than one meal or less per month.
The farmed salmon industry immediately objected, and got support from the government. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also disputed the study's recommendations, noting the agency's tolerance level for PCBs in salmon is 2,000 parts per billion, nearly 55 times the level found in the farmed fish. FDA officials advised consumers not to reduce the amount of salmon they consume.
Regardless of how the findings are interpreted, the effects of the well-publicized study are still being felt. In some markets, salmon sales have been impacted. More commonly, retailers told SN they've fielded a barrage of questions from concerned shoppers.
On the East Coast, salmon sales at stores operated by Ahold USA have suffered. In January, soon after the report was published in the journal Science, sales at some of Ahold's top salmon-selling stores in the Northeast were down as much as 20%, an official with Ahold's procurement office told SN. Sales are beginning to recover, though they were still "off 10% to 15% a month later," said Craig Appleyard, a project manager based at Ahold's procurement headquarters in Braintree, Mass. Ahold operates 1,300 stores under six banners.
"I've heard from other retailers they're seeing similar effects," he said. "Food safety hits home."
The new study was only the latest bit of salmon controversy to hit the airwaves and newspapers in recent months. Other reports have raised safety questions, including one concerning the use of coloring and a smaller study released last year that revealed similar findings with respect to PCBs in farmed salmon. But the other reports didn't have such a detrimental effect on sales, Appleyard said.
"Actually it's been the most significant impact on salmon sales that we've seen from one of these [media] blitzes," he said.
Not all stores have experienced slumping sales. Officials at Pittsburgh-based Giant Eagle haven't seen any measurable decline in salmon sales that can be attributed to the controversial study; however, store associates have received "sporadic inquiries" from consumers, said a spokesman for the chain of more than 200 stores.
"We continue to monitor this situation including the studies and reports being performed by reputable institutions, and we educate our seafood associates accordingly so they can further communicate to our customers the many health benefits of salmon, as well as the varieties of both farm-raised and wild [frozen] that we offer," said Brian Frey, marketing assistant in the retailer's corporate communications department.
Nor have sales taken much of a hit at the upscale Bristol Farms chain in Southern California. More than most retailers, Bristol Farms promotes wild salmon. The Carson, Calif.-based retailer a few years ago developed a marketing plan to promote various varieties of wild salmon as a differentiation strategy. Bristol Farms sells fresh wild salmon when it's available, and frozen when fresh cannot be sourced. For customers who prefer the more reasonably priced farmed variety, the retailer provides literature on the farm, including the contents of the fish diet. Also available is literature debunking some of the claims against farm-raised fish since the latest study came out.
"We've had a fair amount of inquiries," said Pete Davis, senior director of meat, seafood and sushi for the 11-store chain. "We carry farm-raised salmon out of Scotland. The statistics [provided by the farm] show that the product actually has less [PCBs] than wild salmon."
Associates at Wild Oats Markets stores have seen a shift in buying since the salmon study came out. The stores outsell wild salmon to farmed salmon 3-to-1, a spokeswoman for the chain told SN. When customers first heard the news about PCB levels, store associates steered them to frozen wild salmon and a new product, Clare Island organic farmed salmon, sold exclusively at Wild Oats. Though the United States does not have a classification for organic seafood, the Clare Island salmon are farmed in accordance with organic farming standards set by Naturland Verband of Germany, the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association, Bio Suisse and Qualite France, officials said.
Tests on the Irish salmon have shown it contains significantly lower levels of PCB contamination as well as higher levels of Omega 3 fatty acids than conventionally raised farmed salmon, the spokeswoman said.
"We did see a lot more customer inquiries and concerns coming from customers on this issue," said Sonja Tuitele, director of corporate communications for the 102-store natural and organic foods chain based in Boulder, Colo. "As a result, our organic Irish farmed salmon is now out-selling conventionally raised farmed salmon."
Customers who shop at natural and organic food stores tend to be more inquisitive about the origins of their food than shoppers at conventional stores. A flier produced by Wild Oats tells shoppers the story behind Clare Island organic salmon, such as the Omega-3 fatty acid content and fish feed information, including the fact the salmon are hand-fed by fishermen.
Wild Oats' chief rival, Whole Foods Market stores, makes similar information available. At Whole Foods' newest store in Manhattan in New York City, SN visited the seafood department and observed a sign telling consumers the farm-raised salmon came from Shetland Island off the coast of Scotland, which contains no antibiotics and was fed fish trimmings "destined for human consumption" as well as shrimp shells that promote natural coloring.
Indeed, the study may be helping sell the public on wild salmon, never mind that it's available only frozen for most of the year, and sells for a premium price. At least that's been the case at Dierbergs Markets. Right after the study came out, officials sensed the time could be right to promote wild product. The St. Louis-based chain of 21 stores created circulars featuring specials on farm-raised and frozen wild salmon side by side, with the slogan, "Your choice."
"We increased wild salmon sales significantly," said Bernie Moran, Dierbergs' seafood buyer. "The same thing happened a year ago when the Environmental Working Group did their report [on salmon]. For a time, we saw people move to wild salmon."
At Dorothy Lane Market, stores have faced a wild salmon supply problem this year. As a result, the upscale Dayton, Ohio-based retailer has been promoting the low levels of PCBs found in its Shetland salmon, a farmed variety from the same Scottish coast. Dorothy Lane had its salmon importer contract with a laboratory to test the fish for contaminants, and results showed the Shetland salmon is lower in PCBs than other farm-raised and wild salmon.
"When all the news came out, we immediately sent a sample off to have it tested," said Jack Gridley, director of meat and seafood for Dorothy Lane. "The level our initial first test was done at wasn't going to detect PCB levels that low. We went to the importer and requested they do the test. We had a lot of people questioning and talking about [the study] and they were very relieved to learn we were proactive and tested the salmon, and also had our supplier do a test. The story didn't hurt our sales."
About 90% of salmon sold at Ahold's stores is farm-raised. Appleyard said he has great confidence in the safety and quality of the product -- much of it comes from Chile. Unlike other retailers, Ahold sources the majority of its salmon directly from the farmers, without using a distributor. Cutting out the middleman makes it easy for the company to know exactly where products come from, Appleyard said. Farmed salmon also undergoes testing.
"The quality is a lot better than a wild salmon," he said. "When consumers call me, I tell them fortunately, our farmed salmon is tested. I'm in the dark with what happens to wild salmon. It can come from 50 different areas. All of that's been out in the wild, going up different rivers. All will have different levels of PCBs. I've never seen or heard of testing of wild salmon."
While the job of educating consumers on salmon safety is daunting -- particularly for a large chain with several different banners in a number of states -- education will be the key to building up sales, he said. Store associates have been filling in the blanks for customers with questions, but the company has not conveyed as much information on the fish farms as Appleyard would like.
"It takes some time to train associates on these issues," Appleyard said. "When you communicate too much information to folks, they don't always get it right. If we had 25 stores, we'd be communicating right now."