If you’ve ever splurged on wild-caught salmon, you may have been ripped off by false labeling.
Unfortunately mislabeled salmon is scandalously common, a new survey shows. Oceana, an organization that works to protect and restore oceans around the world, collected 82 samples of salmon from grocery stores and restaurants. After performing DNA testing on the fish, they discovered that 43 had been mislabeled. Out of those, 69 were farmed fish labeled as wild-caught.
That’s disturbing news considering how much more expensive supposedly wild-caught salmon is than farmed. Some of us choose wild-caught believing it to be more nutritious and better for the environment. In fact, thanks to new technology, farmed salmon can be a good choice… if you know what to look for. So how can you tell? What do all those labels really mean?
Here are a few common terms you’ll see on salmon at the grocery store that can help you make the best choice.
- Farmed: Fish grown in a controlled environment, called aquaculture. Farmers supply the feed. Most farmed fish are Atlantic, and the fish is available year-round. Nutritional quality can vary widely. Farmed fish is usually less expensive than wild-caught.
- Wild-caught: Fish grown and caught in its natural environment. It eats in the wild. Most wild salmon is from the Pacific Ocean and includes chinook, chum, pink and sockeye varieties. It’s available fresh only in the summer, from May to September. Wild salmon is usually more expensive than farmed, and people consider it more nutritious as well.
- Recirculating aquaculture system: This is a form of aquaculture in which water is continuously cleaned and recirculated. Waste is used to fertilize land crops elsewhere. This is better for the fish and the environment.
- Net pen: This is another form of aquaculture in which fish are raised in an enclosed area in the ocean. Fish are often crowded, and large amounts of waste flow into the ocean. Also, disease can spread easily among the farm fish and then to the wild populations outside the farm.
- Organic: This applies only to farmed salmon. We can’t control what fish eat in the wild, so there’s no way to comply with national organic standards for wild-caught salmon.
- Flash-frozen: This is a rapid freezing process that preserves the most amount of nutrition possible. It’s a good alternative to fresh salmon. In fact, most salmon is flash-frozen soon after it’s caught as a way to kill off pathogens even if it’s sold fresh.
- Color-enhanced through feed: Wild salmon flesh gets its pink hue from astaxanthin, an antioxidant found in the phytoplankton (like krill) it eats. Many farms feed their salmon a synthetic form of astaxanthin and are therefore required to label their fish as such. Synthetic astaxanthin is almost as nutritious as the natural version.
For more information on selecting fish, check out Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch salmon recommendations.
Here’s another tip: Oceana performed its survey in the winter, when wild salmon is out of season. When Oceana conducted the same survey in the summer of 2013, the mislabeling rate was much lower, around 7 percent. So keep that in mind. You shouldn’t be able to buy fresh, wild-caught salmon from October through April. If you see it, it’s most likely mislabeled. And labels are more likely to be trustworthy in the summer.