Salmon Counterfeiting Growing
Stores Say Wild Salmon, but Tests Say Farm Bred
By MARIAN BURROS
The New York Times
April 10, 2005
Fresh wild salmon from West Coast waters used to have a low profile in
New York: it generally migrated eastward in cans. But a growing concern
about the safety of farm-raised fish has given fresh wild salmon
cachet. It has become the darling of chefs, who praise its texture and
flavor as superior to the fatty, neutral-tasting farmed variety, and
many shoppers are willing to pay far more for it than for farmed salmon.
Today, "fresh wild salmon" is abundant, even in the winter when little
of it is caught. In fact, it seems a little too abundant to be true.
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.
For shoppers, said David Pasternack, the chef and an owner at Esca, a
theater district fish restaurant, buying authentic wild salmon "is like
The findings mirror suspicions of many in the seafood business that
wild salmon could not be so available from November to March, the
off-season. Wild and farmed salmon fillets and steaks look similar
because farmed fish are fed artificial coloring that makes them pink,
but that coloring can be measured in laboratory testing.
With East Coast wild salmon all but extinct and West Coast wild catches
restricted by quotas, farmed fish constitute 90 percent of this
country's salmon sales.
Yet last month, when fresh wild salmon should have been scarce, 23 of
25 stores checked by The Times said they had it in stock.
The Times sent random samples of salmon bought on March 9 to Craft
Technologies in Wilson, N.C., for testing and comparison of levels of
natural and artificial pigments, a method that scientists at the Food
and Drug Administration have used to identify wild and farmed salmon.
The Craft scientists analyzed pigments known as carotenoids.
Only the sample bought at Eli's Manhattan on the Upper East Side
($22.99 a pound) tested wild. Salmon tested farmed at six stores: Dean
& DeLuca in SoHo ($16.95); Grace's Marketplace ($28.99) and Leonard's
($19.95) on the Upper East Side; M. Slavin & Sons wholesale market at
the Fulton Fish Market ($4.50 a pound for whole fish) and its Brooklyn
retail store ($5.99); and Wild Edibles at the Grand Central Market
Officials at Craft Technologies said that a sample from Whole Foods
Market in Chelsea ($14.99) seemed to show that the fish had been farmed
at one time and had escaped into the wild. Storms or holes in the
netting are some of the opportunities that fish exploit to make a break
for it. Figures for the number that flee their pens are hard to come
by, but it may be in the millions yearly.
A researcher at the F.D.A., who reviewed the results only on the
condition of anonymity, said that Craft Technologies "had used a method
that is accepted," and that he agreed with its findings.
In the last two years two scientific studies have reported that farmed
salmon contain more PCB's and other contaminants than wild salmon, and
numerous studies have called farming practices an environmental hazard.
When told of the results of the fresh salmon tests, Gretchen Dykstra,
New York City's commissioner of consumer affairs, said, "Labeling any
item to be something it's not is a classic deceptive practice." She
added that her agency would "be investigating whether these stores are
in fact improperly baiting their customers." Mislabeling food is
against federal law.
Officials at the stores had a variety of explanations.
Peter Leonard, an owner of Leonard's, said that his records did not go
back as far as March 9, but that his sales clerks "must have gotten the
salmon from the wrong pile in the back."
William Lettier, the vice president for retail operations at Dean &
DeLuca, said four of his vendors could not provide him with their paper
trail. He said he now wanted proof of the source of the fish from his
vendors and would have his salmon spot-tested.
Jonathan Meyer, a partner in Wild Edibles, said he had narrowed the
source of his fish to two Northwest vendors and had suspended business
connections with both.
At M. Slavin & Sons in Brooklyn, the store manager, Phil Cohen, said:
" Our salmon is from Canada. All wild salmon in Canada is farm raised."
But it can't be both.
A whole salmon sold to this reporter as wild from Slavin's in the
Fulton Fish Market was pulled from a box marked "farmed Canada."
"I know you are looking at the label, but believe me," the clerk at
Fulton said. "Don't pay any attention to the label."
When his remarks were repeated to Herbert Slavin, an owner of M.
Slavin, he said: "How do you know he is an expert? We do not
The Times tested two salmon fillets sold as wild by Grace's
Marketplace, one labeled "Rainforest," indicating it came from
Washington State, the other "Columbia River." Joe Doria Jr., an owner
of Grace's, said that one of his suppliers, Alaskan Feast, had sold
wild Alaskan troll king salmon to the store.
But Daniel Kim, an owner of Alaskan Feast, said he had not sold the
store Rainforest or Columbia River wild salmon, adding that it would
have been almost impossible to buy any fresh wild salmon from either
source in March.
Mr. Doria offered another explanation: "Sometimes when these fish come
off the boat they get separated, and I got sent the wrong salmon from
In addition, Mr. Kim called to say that a whole salmon one of his
salesman at the Fulton Fish Market sold to this reporter as wild was
actually farmed. He said his salesman had "made a mistake." The fish
was not analyzed.
Margaret Wittenberg, the vice president for marketing and public
affairs at Whole Foods, said its wild salmon was properly labeled and
came from the trolling of California's wild king salmon.
The Times's findings were confirmed by two Norwegian researchers, Dr.
Bjorn Bjerkeng, a leading researcher in the analysis of salmon
carotenoids at the Institute Aquaculture Research in Sunndalsora,
Norway, and Dr. Harald Lura, a fish biologist and expert in salmon
reproduction, who said of the study, "The methodology and results are
Wild salmon become pink by eating sea creatures like krill, which
contain a carotenoid called astaxanthin. Farmed salmon are naturally
grayish but turn pink when they are fed various sources of astaxanthin,
including one that is chemically synthesized and others that originate
from yeast or microalgae.
During Craft's two-week testing, it determined that the controlled
sample and the one from Eli's had more than 60 percent of the form of
astaxanthin that occurs naturally, within the range of 50 to 80 percent
typical for wild salmon. All the other samples except the one from
Whole Foods had 30 percent or less of the form dominant in wild salmon.
The sample from Whole Foods had 37.9 percent. The farmed samples tested
high in either the synthetic or the yeast forms of astaxanthin.
Laura Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Alaska Seafood Marketing
Institute, a state agency that promotes wild seafood, said, "The
symptom is not confined to Manhattan." She added, "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 extent of the problem is certainly surprising," Ms. Fleming said,
" especially in a place like New York, where the most sophisticated
consumers in the country live, people who really scrutinize a purchase."
Federal regulations governing country-of-origin labeling took effect on
Monday. They require fish to carry a paper trail back to the source,
but they apply to full-service markets like grocery stores, not to fish
Joseph Catalano, a partner at Eli's and the Vinegar Factory who is
responsible for the fish those markets sell, said he was not surprised
by the test results. "The bottom line on all this is money," he said.
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.
"The most obvious clue is flavor," said Ms. Fleming of the Alaskan
agency, "but by that time it's too late."
We often think of seafood as "grown-up food." But recent findings suggest it is important to have the benefits of omega-3s from fish and shellfish starting early in life. For instance, studies reveal that one particular omega-3 fatty acid, known as DHA, plays a role in optimal eye and brain development of babies. When a mother-to-be or new mother consumes omega-3s, they are transferred to the baby through the placenta or in breast milk. Thus, it's wise for pregnant and nursing mothers to make fish and shellfish a regular part of their diets. As children grow older, seafood provides an excellent source of high-quality, easily digested protein. And the soft, chewable texture of fish and shellfish is ideal for kids who have trouble chewing meat. For young children, choose types without bones, or remove bones before serving. And since heart-healthy diets are advocated for children, as well as adults, seafood-eating helps jump-start kids on an early course of healthful eating.
A study reported in Archives of Internal Medicine showed that women who ate a diet of primarily fruit, vegetables, fish, and whole grains had a lower risk of colon cancer, while those eating a typical Western diet (red meat, fried foods, white bread, and desserts) had a significantly higher risk.
A 16-year study of almost 85,000 women found that those who ate fish two to four times weekly cut their risk of heart disease by 30 percent, compared with women who rarely ate fish.