Do you prefer wild-caught salmon or the farm-raised variety? If you prefer wild-caught, you are probably paying more for the privilege. In that case, a new study from the environmental group Oceana suggests that you may not always be getting what you are paying for.
Oceana tested the DNA of 82 samples of salmon gathered from restaurants and grocery stores during the winter of 2013-2014 and found that a whopping 43% of them were mislabeled. The majority of the mislabeling (69%) involved farm-raised salmon being represented as higher-priced wild-caught salmon. Diners who ordered salmon in restaurants were misled a staggering two-thirds of the time, while grocery stores only had a 20% rate of mislabeling. Larger grocery stores were better at labeling correctly than their smaller counterparts.
The results may reflect the seasonal nature of fresh fish. Wild salmon are in season and plentiful from May through September. A similar labeling test run by Oceana earlier in 2013 during the sockeye salmon season found that only 7% of 384 samples were mislabeled. When wild-caught fish are out of season, the likelihood of finding farm-raised fish mislabeled in its place is considerably higher.
Consumers should be suspicious of wild-caught salmon that has a relatively low price out-of-season. Unscrupulous vendors can easily mislead the public, but in fairness, the mislabeling is probably unintentional in most cases. There is little traceability in the supply chain for fish, in large part because the majority of wild-caught salmon in the US is exported for processing overseas in order to cut costs. After exporting, it is very difficult to determine how much of our wild salmon returns to the US with the correct labeling.
Fishermen are caught in the middle, since mislabeling punishes those who abide by the rules. Farm-raised salmon enter into the wild-caught system, increasing the apparent supply of wild-caught fish and dropping the rate that anglers are paid for their catch.
If you want to increase your odds of getting the salmon you want, you can find seasonal buying guides to understand when particular varieties of salmon are in season and thus you may be more easily able to detect pricing that does not match up (forgive us for calling it "fishy pricing"). You can also ask questions about the origin of the fish. Unfortunately, without traceability, it is difficult to prove much of anything.
Does it really matter whether the salmon you buy is farm-raised or wild? In practical terms, it probably does not. Farm-raised salmon generally tend to have a higher fat content and a larger flaking pattern with the meat, while meat from wild salmon has a finer grain pattern. The average consumer would not be able to tell the difference between farm-raised and wild salmon easily, and experts may not be able to tell, either.
In 2013, the Washington Post set up a blind taste test that included notable seafood chefs and other seafood experts to find out if they could taste the difference. It turned out that they could — and farm-raised salmon won the taste test going away. The overall winner was a variety of frozen salmon purchased at Costco. So much for seafood snobbery.
Whether you can taste the difference between wild and farm-raised salmon or not, your salmon should be labeled correctly. Unfortunately, without any sort of traceability system, you really do not have a way to tell the difference — unless you want to pay for DNA testing on all of your fish. If the issue bothers you that much, perhaps you should switch to chicken.