Vital Choice and Dr. Weil tip NYT to "wild Salmon" scam
The report echoes the point of a story first broken by The New York Times, thanks to a tip provided by Vital Choice co-founder Randy Hartnell.
On April 10, 2005, The New York Times published the findings of its investigation into the Salmon bait-and-switch scam, which resulted from Hartnell's November, 2004 trip to Fulton Fish market. He was there to be interviewed, with bestselling author Andrew Weil, M.D., for a syndicated television news story about the health benefits of omega-3s, Salmon as the premier healthy source, and the distinction between wild and farmed Salmon.
As they roamed among the fish mongers, Mr. Hartnell and Dr. Weil came upon stacks of boxes labeled “Wild King Salmon,” in an area used by a major regional distributor.
According to Hartnell, “We knew fresh wild King Salmon was out of season, so I asked the distributor where he was getting it. To our amazement, he admitted, with no apparent shame or embarrassment, that the Salmon in the boxes were actually farm-raised wild king Salmon. “He admitted that the regional supermarket and restaurants he supplies were very price-sensitive, so the mislabeling was good for business."
Mr. Hartnell relayed his experience to New York Times food reporter Marion Burros, which prompted an investigation by the newspaper.
A few months later, The New York Times published findings (“Stores Say Wild Salmon, but Tests Say Farm Bred”) that confirmed Mr. Hartnell's tip, and revealed that the Salmon scam was ubiquitous in New York City.
While retailers and restaurants have a significant economic incentive to mislabel farmed Salmon as wild Salmon, some may be unwitting victims of the common con game.
Consumer watchdog confirms NYT and Vital Choice findings
America's leading consumer magazine bought 23 allegedly “wild” Salmon fillets in November, December, and March of 2005: three months that fall in the off-season for wild-caught salmon.
Their lab tests revealed that only 10 of the 23 fillets were Salmon caught in the wild, and that the rest were from farm-raised Salmon. Fraud was not encountered when they purchased Salmon labeled “wild” during the height of the Salmon-harvest season in the summer of 2005, when tests showed that all 27 Salmon purchased really were wild-harvested.
Interestingly, they bought two unlabeled salmon that salespeople said were “organic”, despite the absence then of a federal rule allowing the use of the organic label on fish. Lab tests showed that both fish were farm-raised.
Avoiding the salmon scam: tips for the consumer
The consumer watchdogs included some advice on how to increase the odds that you'll actually get wild Salmon, some of which made sense, but others of which were problematic.
Here's our take on the magazine's tips:
- They advised buying wild Salmon in the summer, since almost all wild fresh Salmon comes from Alaska, where the harvest starts in May and ends in September. (Some King salmon is caught and sold from late fall to early spring, but only in small amounts.) OUR COMMENT: The problem with this advice is obvious: it limits you to getting wild Salmon in only four to five months of the year.
- They advised picking canned Alaska Salmon, which as they noted, is “wild by definition”, because the state does not permit Salmon farming. OUR COMMENT: That's sound advice, but ignores the fact that Canada also produces very high quality canned wild Salmon.
- They advised going by taste, since their taste panel found—as does virtually everyone who's tried both—that wild Salmon features a deeper flavor and firmer flesh.
We offered our own scam-avoidance tip when we broke the Fulton Fish Market story in December of 2004: Know your source!
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.