Would you be able to tell if the wild Alaskan sockeye salmon you ordered for dinner was swapped out for a less expensive piece of farm-raised salmon?
For the observant, the color difference between the two would likely be the first give away. (Sockeye has a deeper red-orange hue.) Or maybe you’d notice the disparity in the thickness of fillet. (Sockeye is flatter and less steaky in appearance.)
But what if you ordered the most coveted of salmon species — king salmon? (It’s also known as Chinook.) Much like farmed Atlantic salmon, its light in color, thick in texture and similarly marbled with fat. It’s also significantly more expensive. And according to a new report released Wednesday by conservation group Oceana, it’s a fish where you’re more likely to get duped — especially if you order it from a restaurant during the winter.
In its latest attempt to uncover seafood fraud, Oceana collected and tested 82 salmon samples from restaurants and grocery stores in Virginia, Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York between December 2013 and March 2014. Results showed that 43 percent of salmon samples tested were mislabeled, and that far more of that mislabeling is occurring in restaurants than in large supermarkets.
The instances of salmon fraud were significantly higher than during an earlier 2013 nationwide study by the same group. That study included far more — 384 samples, which showed salmon fraud at only 7 percent. But the jump isn’t being attributed to a sudden increase in unabandoned label swapping, rampant menu hijinks or differences in sample size. This survey was designed to measure fraud during the winter months, when salmon was not in season, and the marketplace would be shorter on supply, says Kimberly Warner, a senior scientist at Oceana who authored the new report.
“In D.C. in summer, I don’t think we had any salmon mislabeling. Same for Chicago,” says Warner.
To select samples for the newest study, Oceana searched online menus for restaurants touting “wild salmon” and sought out salmon labeled “wild” in grocery stores.
What the group found was that when wild salmon was out of season, the testing netted significantly different results. Diners were likely to get duped 67 percent of the time when ordering salmon in restaurants, compared with 20 percent of the time when buying in large grocery stores — which have to comply with country of origin labeling (COOL) regulations. And when diners were deceived, it was more likely to be an incident of farmed salmon being passed off as more expensive wild (69 percent of the time).
Erica Cline, an associate professor at the University of Washington Tacoma, conducted a similar study published in 2012. Initially, she also found higher rates of farmed salmon being swapped for wild during winter months. But her ongoing testing in the years since has found that fraud tends to fluctuate regardless of season. Like Oceana’s report, “we still see substantially higher rates of substitution in restaurants than in [grocery] stores,” Cline says.
Oceana says this kind of fraud is a real economic problem: Salmon-loving consumers aren’t always getting what they’re paying for, and responsible American salmon fishermen are being forced to compete with fraudulent products “receiving less cash than they should be for their hard-won catch,” according to the report.
And Warner says it’s an environmental problem for those consumers who go the extra mile to consult seafood sustainability ratings like the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which ranks seafood as “best choice,” “good alternative” or “avoid.”
Salmon fraud is a real concern for seafood consumers and as the winter months approach, it’s important for us to understand that we’re actually getting what we pay for. Let’s make sure that the salmon we’ve ordered at our favorite restaurant is the salmon that’s being served to us.