People in the Pacific Northwest are considerably more salmon-savvy than most Americans.
So, given our region's familiarity with and preference for wild salmon, it's pretty shocking that 38 percent of the “wild” salmon served in many restaurants around Washington State's Puget Sound proved to be farmed fish instead.
Retail stores in the area were less likely to have mislabeled salmon, with just seven percent of samples from supermarkets and fish stores found to be fraudulent.
The study was conducted over the past three years by biology students from the University of Washington Tacoma, who performed DNA tests on 105 samples from restaurants and stores.
Signs of farmed salmon
Big, wide, bands of white fat plus a “greasy” mouth feel are strong signs, albeit not proof, of farmed Atlantic salmon.
Wild salmon (especially king) can show fat bands, but rarely as large as Atlantic salmon's, and it never tastes greasy ... just rich.
So as you knew or have now guessed, the portion at the bottom of our accompanying photo is farmed Atlantic salmon.
Most of the salmon tested came from establishments located in Pierce County, which encompasses the southern end of Puget Sound.
According to project supervisor Erica Cline, an assistant professor in the university's environmental program, “We've been shocked at the results, particularly in the restaurants.” (Gillie J 2011)
Farmed salmon often sold as wild, and wild species frequently swapped
Almost four out of 10 times, salmon called “wild” on the menu was actually cheap farm-raised Atlantic salmon.
And even when the salmon served actually was wild-caught, restaurants often substituted a cheaper species for the one named on the menu.
For example, when the menu claimed that a dish featured costly chinook (king) salmon, the fish actually served was often coho (silver) salmon.
Although silver salmon is a perfectly good eating fish, it's much cheaper for a store or restaurant to buy, and nowhere as rich as king salmon, with approximately one-third fewer omega-3s … about 1.3 grams per 3.5 oz serving, versus about 2 grams in a serving of king.
Sadly, among the three restaurants from which the students took and tested multiple samples, all were mislabeled.
Stores fared better than restaurants
The students also detected fraud at supermarkets and seafood stores … but the rate was much lower, with just seven percent of store samples mislabeled.
The UWT study showed that the fraud occurred most often in the winter, when fresh wild salmon is hardly available.
Mislabeling was more common in dishes that featured salmon as one of several ingredients, versus dishes that featured salmon as the centerpiece.
Also, mislabeling was found less often among larger retailers, compared with smaller retailers.
The students couldn't say where in the supply chain the mislabeling occurred … processor, distributor, or retailer.
But while major wild salmon distributors say they ensure accuracy, a distributor in our home town of Bellingham, Washington was recently and sentenced to a year in prison for substituting silver (coho) salmon for king (chinook).
While it can be difficult for the inexperienced consumer to tell the difference, wild salmon veterans like the former Alaska fishermen who run Vital Choice can easily identify the five Pacific species by look, feel, and taste ... and can detect farmed Atlantic salmon with even greater ease.
Gillie J. Study shows salmon isn't always what it seems. The News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington. July 6, 2011. Accessed at http://www.thenewstribune.com