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Food, Health, and Eco-news
Farmed vs. Wild Salmon: Answers to a Customer's Questions

Concerns center on purity and how to know you're getting the real, wild thing

by Randy Hartnell

I received this letter recently from a concerned customer, concerning the common practice of selling farmed Salmon labeled “wild” and the relative healthfulness of farmed and wild Salmon.

Here's his letter, followed by my response:

Dear Vital Choice:

Can anyone please tell me why the federal government allows the farming of Salmon when it is known to cause cancer?

I know that eating the wild Salmon is the healthiest fish and of course a lot better than eating steak or chicken but I now wonder how can I possibly eat the proper wild Salmon at a restaurant when the restaurant tells me its wild. How can I be sure?

I had been purchasing Whole Foods frozen wild Sockeye Salmon and now I am wondering if that is really wild.

What do you suggest to help me out here since I usually eat out more than eat in?

I'd love to hear your suggestions. Thank you very much in advance.


My response:

Hi Mark,

Thanks for writing to express your concerns.

In the past few months I've traveled to conferences in Baltimore, Denver, Boulder, and Phoenix, each time encountering farmed Salmon being sold as wild.

Supermarkets and restaurants can be a “minefield” for seafood consumers, and we take pride in offering safe and reliable alternatives.

Our deep commitment to doing so is the reason we've won the endorsement of so many health and wellness leaders who've come to know us and our products.

The wild Sockeye Salmon you find at Whole Foods is likely to be genuine, though the quality will vary depending on how long it sat in the hold of a boat before being processed and frozen, and how long it's been thawed and exposed to light and air.

Large retailers generally purchase wild Salmon from fisheries where the Salmon are not handled as carefully

The healthy omega-3 polyunsaturated fats in Salmon are highly unstable and begin to oxidize and go rancid relatively quickly once exposed to the air.

This explains why so much supermarket seafood tastes “fishy,” and why so many people think they don't like fish. They've had more bad fish than good, and assume that's the way it's supposed to taste!

Generally, the best way to ensure freshness is to purchase fish frozen and vacuum sealed.

Salmon farming is illegal in Alaska, so Salmon from there is always wild.

In contrast, Salmon labeled “Atlantic,” “Scottish,” Norwegian,” “Chilean,” or “New Zealand”in fact, just about any Salmon besides Alaskan Salmonis industrially farmed.

(Canada produces both wild and farmed Salmon so you have to tread carefully there.)

More than ever, people understand that wild Salmon offer superior culinary quality, and this growing perception explains the proliferation of fraudulent labeling.

Because wild Salmon is more costly, anyone selling it is sure to emphasize its origin rather than conceal it.

Conversely, stores and restaurants can profit greatly by labeling and pricing cheap farmed Salmon as wild Salmon.

Cheaters will often use the generic terms “Pacific Salmon,” or “wild Salmon,” so look for Salmon labeled more specifically, such as “Wild Alaskan King Salmon.”

Wild Salmon is usually only available fresh (as opposed to frozen) during the spring and summer months, so if you see it offered fresh other times of the year, beware.

Another good indicator is color. Wild Salmon will generally be darker orange and have less pronounced white fat lines than farmed Salmon.

If the seafood clerk or wait person is at all ambiguous in response to your questions about the particular origin or specie of wild Salmon, then chances are high that it's farmed.

Wild Salmon tends to be carried by stores and restaurants that cater to customers who appreciate and demand it, so they should be able to confidently answer such questions.

Beyond the way it's presented on the menu, once you bite into it, if it has a greasy, ‘off' aftertaste it's almost definitely farmed.

All in all, the best strategy is to find and patronize trustworthy stores and restaurants, assuming they exist in your area (If not, we're always here!).

As to your concern about contaminants in farmed Salmon, there is no evidence that the amounts in it are at all likely to cause cancer.

Both farmed and wild Salmon are very low in mercury.

And while farmed Salmon contains relatively high levels of toxic PCBs, they are still extremely low levels, compared to the amounts suspected to be carcinogenic.

While I'm no defender of farmed Salmon (far from it!), I do believe that one needs to keep in mind that we're talking about very small numbers (a few parts per trillion) when it comes to PCBs, and that health risks at these levels are hypothetical and likely to be vanishingly small.

In my experience, when it comes to contaminants in seafood, there is a lot of fear mongering by people and organizations that neglect to acknowledge the magnitude of the benefits in comparison to the small theoretical risks of trace exposure.

Academic researchers who've analyzed risk and rewards of seafood uniformly have universally found that the evidence favors increased fish consumption. The obvious exceptions are the few species exceptionally high in mercurytilefish, swordfish, king mackerel, and sharkwhich pregnant and nursing mothers should avoid.

Nevertheless, there are many other nutritional and environmental problems associated with farmed Salmon and I commend you for trying to avoid it.

The Coastal Alliance for Aquaculture Reform (CAAR) offers scientifically sound information on farmed Salmon

You can find more information on this subject by visiting our newsletter archive.

I hope you find this information helpful.

Best regards,

Randy Hartnell, President

Vital Choice Wild Seafood & Organics