If you opt to put healthful, wild-caught salmon on the menu, be warned: the fish on your plate may be an imposter – and inferior in every way. In a “bait and switch” worthy of the slipperiest con man, farmed Atlantic salmon is routinely being substituted for pricier and nutritionally-superior wild-caught Alaskan salmon.
Consumers are being cheated, honest fishermen are being financially deprived, and unscrupulous vendors revel in their illegal profits. To make matter worse: this unethical practice has been ongoing for over a decade.
The salmon story that restaurants like to ignore
In a report released by the conservation group Oceana, researchers collected 82 samples of “wild-caught” salmon from restaurants and grocery stores from locations across the country. And DNA analysis showed that a shocking 43 percent were actually mislabeled – a disgraceful statistic. 69 percent of the mislabeling involved farmed Atlantic salmon being sold as wild-caught; the remainder involved inferior Pacific salmon, such as pink and chum, being sold as sockeye and king salmon.
Fish prepared and served in restaurant dishes were the most likely to be mislabeled. Oceana reports that small vendors and restaurants were found to be less trustworthy in their labeling than large grocery stores – which are required to label their offerings with species and country of origin, as well as farmed or wild status. The report showed that 67 percent of the salmon served at restaurants was mislabeled – as opposed to only 20 percent at grocery stores.
Top 5 reasons to favor wild salmon
Wild-caught salmon is the darling of many nutritionists and holistic health experts, for excellent reasons. The flavorful pink flesh features high levels of anti-inflammatory omega fatty acids, as well as healthful amounts of high-quality lean protein, antioxidants, vitamins and essential minerals.
When it comes to the advantages of wild-caught salmon over farmed salmon, experts point to the superior flavor and texture of wild-caught salmon, as well as its ideal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (farmed salmon is actually higher in pro-inflammatory and disease-promoting omega-6 acids).
In addition, wild salmon contains less saturated fat and pollutants, along with higher levels of vitamin D – which researchers increasingly credit with disease-fighting, chemopreventive and bone-building qualities.
But the most significant advantage of wild-caught salmon may be its levels of astaxanthin, a carotenoid and natural pigment that gives the flesh its pinkish-orange color. Wild salmon obtain this antioxidant and anti-inflammatory substance honestly – from their diet of zooplankton. Farm-raised salmon have the same appealing pinkish color, but their hue comes from a commercial feed enhanced with a synthetic version of astaxanthin – derived from petroleum!
Farm-raised salmon are being fed an unhealthy diet
Research has shown that fish that are fed synthetic astaxanthin grow more slowly than their wild-caught counterparts – even when fed a calorically identical diet. And another synthetic pigment added to commercial fish feed, canthaxanthin, may be actually unsafe. In response to troubling research, both the E.U. and Canada have lowered permissible limits.
No surprise: We’ve been down this road before …
Even more infuriating is the fact that the Oceana report merely re-emphasizes what has been over a decade of deception in salmon labeling. In 2004, the New York Times, tipped off by Vital Choice Wild Seafood, reported on mislabeling at the now-defunct Fulton Fish Market in Manhattan. Of 8 salmon fillets advertised as “wild-caught Alaskan salmon,” 6 were actually farmed Atlantic salmon – with full knowledge by the vendors, who stated that the practice was “good for business,” as farmed salmon is cheaper to buy.
The mislabeling is much more pronounced during the “off” season for wild salmon harvest. In later research, of 23 salmon fillets labeled as “wild” – purchased in November, December and March – only 10 were found to be wild salmon, with the other 13 farm-raised. However, when researchers purchased 27 salmon during the height of the salmon harvest season, all, in fact, were wild.
How to protect yourself from salmon scams
There are actions you can take to ensure that the salmon you are buying is as advertised. Since almost all wild, fresh salmon comes from Alaska, buying during the harvest season – which runs from April through September – can help raise your odds that the salmon really is wild.
Another option is to buy canned salmon – with the caveat that it must be Alaska salmon. Since the state doesn’t allow salmon farming, canned Alaska salmon, by definition, is wild-caught.
The salmon scandal hasn’t escaped the notice of politicians, and some are attempting to do something about it. Last year, the White House established the Presidential Task Force on Combating Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing and Seafood Fraud. And in July of 2015, Congressmen Blake Farenthold and Stephen F. Lynch introduced the “Protecting Honest Fishermen Act of 2015,” which calls for seafood traceability requirements throughout the supply chain.
Write your US Representative in support of the bill – let them know you are tired of the unethical and illegal “bait and switch” techniques used by the fish industry.