Last December, we published a story titled “Buyer Beware: Trip to the Big Apple reveals a shameless salmon ‘shell game.'”  The article related the dismaying results of my tour of the famed Fulton Fish Market in lower Manhattan.

There, I discovered a “farmed as wild” labeling scam that was confirmed by The New York Times when it conducted its own subsequent investigation. The results appeared in the newspaper on Sunday, April 10.

Last year's salmon sleuthing

In November of 2004, I was in New York City with Andrew Weil, M.D., where we were to be interviewed for a TV news story. The foci of the syndicated feature were the health benefits of omega-3s, salmon as the premier healthy source, and the distinctions between wild and farmed salmon.

While touring New York's Fulton Fish Market we came upon stacks of boxes labeled “Wild King Salmon,” in an area used by a major distributor that ships thousands of pounds of salmon every week. Because I knew fresh wild King salmon was out of season, I asked the owner the source of the salmon. To our surprise, he freely admitted that the salmon labeled “wild” was actually farmed fish.

We were left to wonder how much of the farmed salmon in the market is mislabeled as “wild.” Now, thanks to a follow up investigation by the New York Times, we know the disturbing answer: salmon mislabeling is widespread.

The article was authored by the Times' renowned food writer Marian Burros, who wrote, “Tests performed for The New York Times in March on salmon sold as wild by eight New York City stores, going for as much as $29 a pound, showed that the fish at six of the eight were farm raised. Farmed salmon, available year round, sells for $5 to $12 a pound in the city.”

Ms. Burros also quoted Laura Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, who said, "The symptom is not confined to Manhattan.  We've had calls from various places around the country over the last several years from indignant fans telling us that stores are promoting product as wild Alaskan salmon when in fact it is not wild salmon at all."

The fake color of consumer fraud

To determine the origin of salmon, The New York Times sent random samples of the “wild” salmon they'd purchased to Craft Technologies in Wilson, N.C., for analyses of the red-orange pigment that lends salmon flesh its characteristic color.  The pigment that colors wild salmon is a potent antioxidant called astaxanthin, which wild fish obtain from their diet.

In contrast, the flesh of farmed salmon is red-orange only because its feed contains synthetic astaxanthin: otherwise, its flesh would be a grim grey color. Farmers can even choose from a range of synthetic feed additives, to produce different shades of red and orange: click here to see our June, 2003 article on this subject.

Fortunately, tests can tell the difference between natural and synthetic astaxanthin pigment, and Craft Technologies' findings were supported by Norwegian experts who endorsed the lab's methodology.

However, some salmon farmers are beginning to use natural astaxanthin derived from the same algae (Haematococcus pluvialis) that give wild salmon their red-orange color. If adopted widely, use of “salmon chow” containing natural astaxanthin will make the origin of salmon more difficult to determine.

Vital Choice offers integrity and value

In light of the prices quoted in the Times' article, I should note that our best fresh/frozen wild salmon values—e.g., an order of nine large sockeye fillets, or an order of 24 six-ounce sliver salmon portions—range from only $11.84 to $13.33 per pound. These prices include shipping, which is free on orders over $99.00.

Accordingly, our best prices are 54 to 59 percent lower than the highest price the Times paid for mislabeled farmed salmon, and they are 11 to 21 percent lower than the lowest price the Times paid for genuine wild salmon—$14.99 per pound—at billion-dollar-plus retailer Whole Foods Market.

Interestingly, the Times' lab test indicated that the sample bought at Whole Foods' Chelsea store was farm-raised before escaping into the wild, which substantial numbers of farmed fish manage to do.  Escaped farmed salmon threaten wild salmon by competing for habitat, spreading disease and parasites, and weakening their genetic integrity.

Why does the salmon scam matter?

The first impact is financial. When farmed salmon is falsely labeled “wild,” deceived consumers pay two to five times its normal price.

Worse, they are cheated of the nutritional and culinary benefits that motivate them to seek out wild salmon.  As our readers know, health experts recommend wild salmon because it offers a significantly superior fatty acid profile.  Wild salmon offers the ideal ratio of omega-3s to omega-6s, and typically contains far less of the saturated fat that gives farmed salmon its characteric “greasy” taste: distinct differences that explain why wild salmon offers both a finer "mouth feel" and richer, deeper flavor.

Finally, there are painful social, economic and environmental repercussions. Those who depend upon a vibrant wild salmon industry are deprived of a fair wage for their work; many of Alaska's natives reside in remote coastal villages with no other source of cash than their annual fishing income. Wild salmon fishermen have been economically and socially devastated by the loss of their markets to farmed salmon. It is important to note that the wild salmon industry is wild salmon's most potent political advocate.

“Salmon populations are good in Alaska; poor elsewhere. Salmon are most at risk not from fishers—who are the chief economic force behind their protection—but from logging, agriculture and dams.” –Audubon Living Oceans Campaign

How can you protect yourself?

It can be difficult to detect the difference between farmed and wild salmon, until you taste the fish.  As the Times reported, “Faced with fillets of wild and farmed salmon, even renowned chefs like Eric Ripert of Le Bernardin and Mr. Pasternack of Esca, who pay top dollar for the choicest seafood, could not visually distinguish one from the other. After the fillets were cooked, however, they could taste the difference.”

I addressed the challenge of detecting mislabeled salmon in our December, 2004 Vital Choices story on the salmon scam, and it's worth repeating what I said:

“Unless you are very familiar with salmon, it is hard to know whether salmon sold in supermarket cases is wild Alaskan or farmed Atlantic. Those who are experienced with both may detect visual differences, and will almost certainly taste the difference. Generally speaking, wild Alaskan salmon has less marbling, but natural variations among species make this visual clue an unreliable indicator.

“Taste is a surer test, since its high saturated fat content gives most farmed salmon an undesirably fatty mouth feel.  Farmed salmon may even smell different during cooking.  But, by the time your senses indicate a possible salmon scam, it is too late.

“While retailers and restaurants have a significant economic incentive to ‘look the other way,' it is important to note that some may be unwitting accomplices in this con game.

The surest way to know you are getting authentic wild salmon is to buy it from a knowledgeable vendor… if you can find one. At Vital Choice you have my word that you'll always get what you pay for."

For the full article, click here.