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Watch Out For Counterfeit Salmon

Consumer Reports says fish sold as `wild' may have come from the farm

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Counterfeit salmon
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By Diane C. Lade, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Posted July 1 2006

Specialty foods with labels like "organic," "wild" and "free range" command top dollar. But here's a shocker: a lot of the fish sold as premium-priced "wild" salmon may have spent its entire life in a man-made pond down on the farm, a new report finds.

Consumer Reports, in its current issue, said that an analysis of 23 "wild" salmon filets purchased at a mix of chain supermarkets, small fish stores and wholesalers during the off-season -- November, December and March -- found that only 10 were definitely caught in the Great Outdoors. The rest were from a growing number of salmon farms, which have sprung up as demand for the fish rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids has skyrocketed.

The Consumer Reports team purchased their samples in five states -- New York, California, Ohio, Texas and Michigan -- during the summer of 2005 and the winter of 2006. They used a new technology able to detect the traces of the harmless synthetic additive fed to farm-raised salmon to turn their flesh pinkish orange, a color wild salmon get the same way flamingos do -- by eating crustaceans.

Geoff Martin, director of consumer sciences at Consumers Union, the publishers of Consumer Reports, said he was "amazed" how many of the off-season wild samples were really farmed-raised substitutes. Yet when Consumer Reports had done the test with 27 filets purchased during the summer months, the height of the salmon season, all of those branded "wild" were labeled correctly.

"I think its pretty clear cut," said Martin. "But we don't know if the retailers or the wholesalers are at fault."

The solution, he suggested: Only buy wild salmon from someone you trust.

Hugh Ganter, who has run Seafood World in Pompano Beach for 30 years, wasn't surprised. "People have sold wild salmon to big country clubs and it wasn't wild," said Ganter, who has a wholesale and retail business, plus a restaurant. He says he always asks to see the whole fish when he buys, "because it's easier to identify," he said.

The salmon story, featured in Consumer Reports' August issue, highlights just one way that consumers can end up spending plenty for specialty foods with labels that may mean little or nothing. Terms like "organic," "free range" and "wild" may prompt shoppers to pay double or triple the price; the health conscious think it's worth it, Martin said, as studies have shown wild salmon have less industrial chemicals than those raised in pens, which are fed concentrated fish meal and fish oil.

The most expensive filet Martin's team tested was a phony; farmed salmon being sold as wild. They also found two filets that salespeople insisted were "organic."

There have been federal standards for most organic foods since 2002, enacted because regulators believed the term was being overused. But fish and shellfish are one of the few products not included in the regulations.

The United States Department of Agriculture enforces a "free range" definition for poultry; fowl that are allowed outside a pen for five minutes a day can carry this label. There's no definition for free-range eggs, so manufacturers can use the term at will.

The USDA does require seafood in most retailers to carry "country of origin" labels, stating where the fish is from, and if it's wild or farm-raised. Small fish markets may not be required to label their goods but if they do, USDA officials said, it must be accurate. Fines can be as high as $10,000 per violation.

Positive fish ID, however, may be challenging even for professionals, said Stacey Viera, spokeswoman for the National Fisheries Institute. "There are so many varieties and species out there," she said.

In fact, Consumer Reports decided to do its salmon investigation beginning in 2005 because a technology finally had been developed that detected traces of a harmless additive fed to farm-raised salmon to turn their flesh pinkish orange. Without the test, Martin said, it would have been almost impossible to tell farm from ocean dwellers.

South Florida has seen its share of fishy seafood dealings.

In 2000, two major Miami seafood importers attempting to evade mandatory federal methyl mercury testing were fined $650,000 for trying to pass off swordfish from Uruguay as whitefish, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

And in May, state agriculture inspectors say they discovered workers at Shifco Inc., a food processing plant in Hialeah, repackaging 8,000 pounds of farm-raised Vietnamese broadhead filets in boxes labeled "wild caught grouper," according to Florida Agriculture and Consumer Services spokesman Terence McElroy.

Grouper sells for twice the price of broadhead, similar to catfish. The state and the FDA still are investigating. "It not only wasn't wild, it wasn't even grouper," McElroy said. "It wasn't prime rib of the sea, as it was portrayed."

To protect yourself:
Buy from someone you know and trust.
Good fish should smell fresh, never fishy.
Experts say wild salmon should have a stronger flavor and firmer flesh than farmed. But because of dietary additives, farmed fish may have the same intense color as wild.
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