Vital Choice Customer Q&A
by Randy Hartnell
"Our local grocery advertises that they have king salmon, but do not state whether they are wild or farm-raised. I thought most farm-raised salmon are Atlantic salmon, and that they do not farm-raise king salmon. If so, then the king salmon they sell must be wild. Is this correct? Do they farm raise sockeye salmon? Do they farm raise coho salmon? Thank you for your attention." —James H.
Pacific sockeye salmon are among the most highly prized of the wild salmon species (for their rich red color and firm texture), however attempts to farm them have not been commercially successful. Sockeye have a unique diet and lifecycle that are not easily replicated in an aquaculture environment, though you can bet that somewhere, someone's working on it!
Here are three things to keep in mind when shopping for salmon:
Clues to salmon's real origin: With all of the negative publicity currently surrounding farmed salmon, you can be almost certain that when a retailer or chef goes to the trouble and expense of sourcing wild salmon, he will promote it as such. On the other hand, if you ask about the fish and he doesn't seem to know or care, then it's probably farmed.
Another clue is the word "fresh." Wild Pacific salmon are only harvested seasonally, so when you see fish labeled "fresh" in the dead of winter you know they're farmed. Wild salmon are only available in the off season frozen or "re-freshed" from frozen. These can be as good as or better than so-called "fresh" if they have been handled and packaged optimally.
Alaska has no fish farms, period: Fish farming is banned in Alaska, so all salmon labeled "Alaskan" (legitimately) are wild. Note that while "Alaskan" is synonymous with wild, it does not necessarily translate into high quality. Alaska is a huge place with hundreds of pristine rivers that annually produce millions of wild salmon. While most are fine physical specimens when they leave the water, there are specie-specific characteristics and other factors that dramatically influence the quality of the fish that arrives at market.
For example, there are five different Pacific salmon species, each with its own appearance, flavor, texture and nutrient profile. Alaskan salmon are harvested in diverse areas with unique regional characteristics that further influence the above factors. For instance, fish migrating to large rivers will have a higher oil content than those destined for short ones. An oilier fish will usually have better flavor, a more delicate texture and higher omega-3 levels.
There are varying types of harvest methods, handling and processing techniques, all of which play a significant role in determining the quality of the fish ultimately sold as "wild Alaskan."
Retail clerks are often ignorant of the facts: Most seafood counter clerks know little more than their customers about the salmon they sell. At best they know what their distributor tells them. When asked questions, rather than admit ignorance, they become proficient at crafting half-truths into the answers their customers want to hear (I've personally witnessed this phenomenon countless times).
Try asking where, when or how a particular fish was caught; whether it was sustainably harvested or grown with antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, or colorants? Those who really care will know, but even department managers seldom have time to become knowledgeable about their products. Furthermore, they are under unrelenting pressure from their superiors to maximize their department's profitability. This drives them to push products with the shortest shelf life and the largest margins: objectives that explain the omnipresence of inexpensive fresh-farmed salmon.
As is the case with any food, your best course of action is to get to know your source. Find a knowledgeable purveyor with a value system that reflects your own, one who is committed to providing you with truly superior products. They're likely to cost more, but of course the best always does.