A new study from Oceana, a nonprofit ocean conservation group, makes choosing what to order even harder—especially for lovers of America's favorite fish, salmon. As people grow more conscious of what they're consuming (Sweetgreen > Chipotle > McDonalds), Oceana has found that when it comes to salmon, what you order may not be what you get.
The report found that salmon are being mislabeled in restaurants at the surprisingly high rate of 43%. The researchers collected 82 salmon samples from restaurants and grocery stores last winter in metropolitan areas including Chicago, New York, Washington D.C. and Virginia.
By far, the most common mislabeling occurrence was when farmed Atlantic salmon was sold as wild salmon. A recent Fusion interactive goes into great detail regarding the differences of these two of salmon varieties, explaining that with a few small exceptions, all of the Atlantic salmon eaten today is raised in a fish farm. Wild-caught Pacific salmon is much more widely available. About 75% of the salmon eaten worldwide is farmed fish.
As the Fusion interactive showed, wild sockeye salmon, which comes from the Pacific Ocean, generally has a darker, fleshier tone when compared to the pink meat of farmed salmon. However king salmon, or Chinook, is also light in color and is harder to distinguish from farmed varieties.
The Oceana report found a large discrepancy in mislabeling between restaurant and grocery store salmon, with the former being inaccurate in 67% of the samples and the latter only 20% of the time.
According to the report, "this bait and switch can have serious ecological and economic consequences."
For instance, when less valuable farmed salmon is sold as wild Chinook salmon, the fisherman who responsibly farmed the Chinook are are "forced to compete with fraudulent products," thus impacting their bottom line.
"If someone is trying to purchase something rated as a 'best choice,' like a wild Alaskan salmon, and is getting in its place something from a foreign country that has problems with sea lice or antibiotic use—if farmed—or was caught illegally, it could have serious ecological consequences," Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana who authored the new report, told NPR.
Salmon recently surpassed tuna as America's favorite fish, and domestic consumption has reached some 870 million pounds a year. Due to the complexity of the fishing industry nearly two-thirds of this comes from farmed salmon grown outside the United States even though domestic fishers catch enough salmon to supply nearly four-fifths of America's demand. This is because nearly 70% of the domestic catch is exported—some of which likely makes it back to the United States after processing.
Wild salmon fisheries in the United States are some of the best managed in the world, according to the report. Alternatively, farmed salmon from other countries may involve "inefficient feeding practices, fish waste, misuse of antibiotics and pesticides, and diseases that can spread to wild populations."
One way to avoid the dilemma of buying salmon that might not be true to its marketing is not to eat it during the out-of-season winter months. A previous nationwide Oceana study from 2012 found a much lower rate of 7% mislabeled salmon from 384 samples that were mostly collected during the peak summer months when the market was flush with wild salmon.
Overall, the most likely place to run into fraudulent salmon is in a restaurant in the wintertime.
Oceana also wants the government to intervene by requiring all seafood sold in the United States, including salmon, to have catch documentation and full traceability.
The group also suggests that if the price of the salmon in a restaurant or grocery store is too good to be true, then it probably is.
As with most things, you get what you pay for.