When Salmon Isn’t Salmon

Forty-three percent of fish found to be mislabeled

A delicious meal of fresh, wild-caught Pacific salmon sounds like the perfect weeknight meal. But chances are when we buy that salmon in the store, we may not be getting what we thought we were.

Seafood fraud is a widespread problem in the United States. Companies mislabel fish and shellfish all the time to deceive consumers about what they’re eating in order to increase profits.

Oceana, the world’s largest ocean advocacy non-profit, recently launched a seafood fraud investigation that spanned two years. Of the 1,200 seafood samples it tested through DNA analysis, 33 percent were found to be mislabeled, according to the standards set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

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When only 7 percent of the salmon was found to be mislabeled, the organization was perplexed, as salmon was one of the most collected fish species in the study. Since most of the salmon tested was amassed in the summer when wild salmon is readily available, the organization decided to test salmon in winter.

Related: Fish Tales

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The result? A staggering 43 percent of the salmon analyzed were mislabeled.

In both studies, customers were getting farmed Atlantic salmon when they thought they were purchasing wild king or sockeye salmon. While “wild” has cachet — and certain benefits — American farmed salmon, which is harvested in a freshwater aquaculture in the United States, is held to a much higher standard than salmon farmed overseas.

American farmed salmon is far healthier than product farmed overseas.

And unfortunately, the majority of the farmed Atlantic salmon comes from South America, Norway, or Canada where the fish are crammed into net pens and at high risk of parasites and disease. These salmon are treated with antibiotics and pesticides, which humans than consume, leading to antibiotic resistance and serious health risks.

Related: Those Scary Shellfish

With little room to swim around, farmed salmon have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which nutritionists consider a cardiovascular benefit. Yet the ratio of healthy fat to unhealthy fat in the fish is lower. The fattier farmed salmon also soak up and retain the toxic chemicals they ingest through their fish meal.

David Nistico, an executive chef at a seafood restaurant in Princeton, New Jersey, is actually allergic to farm-raised fish and was not surprised at the mislabeling results of the Oceana study.

“I break out in hives when I am handling the fish,” Nistico said. “The only other time I had a reaction like that is when I was sprayed with a lawn fertilizing sprinkler.”

For his restaurant, Nistico orders about 100 pounds of salmon per week from local vendors, specifying wild Atlantic. Yet, since he has a skin sensitivity to farm-raised fish, Nistico has been able to tell when they were delivered farm-raised salmon in place of wild.

“I do not believe (the vendors) understand the health factors involved with this and are not giving it the attention that is needed,” Nistico asserted.

One study on the toxins in salmon published in 2004 found there are eight times more PCBs in farmed salmon than wild.

A renowned global study on the toxins in salmon published in 2004 found there are eight times more PCBs in farmed salmon than wild. According to FDA guidelines, the high levels of PCB found in farmed salmon at the time of the study were considered safe to consume. Some nutritionists argued the high levels of omega-3 in farmed salmon outweighed the toxic dangers, while other scientists contended the value did not offset the risk.

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The lead scientist on the study was Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University at Albany. Carpenter told LifeZette that in the time since the study was conducted, fish farmers have opted for a cheaper alternative of fish feed, shifting from a concentrated fish meal to a soybean meal that contains less contaminants, but also provides less omega-3s.

“So both the hazard and the benefit have gone down,” Carpenter said. “However, there has not been a systematic study to document that this is the case. And the report from the industry may or may not be accurate.”

In the end, if you cannot verify where the farmed Atlantic salmon is coming from, opt for wild-caught salmon. And during the winter months when nearly half the wild salmon served is actually farmed — consider ordering the pasta.

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