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Consumer Reports reveals that farm-raised salmon is often sold as "wild"

Posted Wednesday, July 5, 2006

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Choosing wild salmon rather than farmed can minimize exposure to pollutants

Yonkers, NY — Salmon that is labeled “wild” may actually be farmed-raised, an analysis in the August issue of Consumer Reports reveals.

Consumer Reports bought 23 supposedly “wild” salmon filets last November, December and March—during the off-season for wild-caught salmon—and found that only 10 of the 23 were definitely caught in the wild. The rest of the fish was farm-raised salmon.

CR’s findings raise both cost and health concerns for the consumer.

Typically, wild salmon costs more than farmed. CR paid an average of $6.31 a pound for salmon labeled as farmed (all of which was indeed farmed) compared with $12.80 for correctly labeled wild salmon. The most costly of the bunch was farmed salmon labeled as wild, with an average price of $15.62 a pound.

In the past 16 years, the average American’s salmon consumption has quintupled with good reason—the fish is high in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and relatively low in mercury. A global salmon-farming industry has developed to meet this demand. Although wild salmon generally carry a higher price tag per pound, they tend to be healthier than the farm-raised variety. Farmed salmon are raised in pens, where they eat meal made from other fish that may have lived in polluted waters. As a result, they tend to accumulate more PCBs and dioxins than wild salmon. These industrial chemicals can cause cancer and reproductive problems, are fat-soluble and can be stored in the body’s fat tissue for years.

Under federal law, most supermarkets must label fresh and frozen seafood with its country of origin and whether it’s wild or farm-raised. Fish stores don’t have to post this information, but if they do, the law requires that it must be accurate.

CR began its investigation in the summer of 2005, at the height of salmon season, when wild salmon is abundant. We purchased both varieties of salmon—salmon labeled wild and salmon labeled as farmed—and tested them for synthetic coloring agents fed to farmed salmon to change their flesh from gray to pink-orange. Not surprisingly, CR’s tests found that all 27 salmon were labeled correctly.

When CR resumed purchasing in salmon’s off-season (November, December and March), we discovered that 13 of 23 salmons labeled as wild turned out to be farm-raised. We also found that supermarkets were more likely to correctly label wild salmon than fish stores in November and December. The good news is that—in our sampling—none harbored malachite green, a potentially carcinogenic fungicide banned in the U.S. but occasionally found in salmon.

From a health standpoint, CR recommends consuming wild salmon as the best choice for most people, especially children and women who may bear children. Here’s what to consider when buying salmon:

  • Go wild in the summer. The U.S. gets 90 percent of its fresh wild salmon from Alaska, where commercial harvest runs from May through September, the same period in which it is most abundant on the market and judging by CR’s tests, most likely to be truthfully labeled.
  • Look for canned Alaska salmon. Alaska salmon is wild by definition. To protect its wild stock, the state has outlawed salmon farming. But some fresh fish sold to CR as Alaska salmon was farmed. Your surest bet for a salmon fix, especially in the winter, may be canned Alaska salmon. It’s fairly cheap, is sold year-round, and generally has “Alaska” stamped on the lid of the can.
  • Buy farmed Atlantic salmon from Chile, the U.S., or Canada. Salmon from these regions tend to have lower levels of PCBs and dioxins than salmon farmed in Europe.
  • Try other sources of omega-3 fats. Top-selling fish oil pills, which CR found are accurately labeled and free of contaminants, can be a good source of omega-3s as well as flaxseed, canola, olive, soybean, and walnut oils.
  • Consider taste. CR’s expert tasters noted that wild salmon has a stronger flavor and firmer flesh than farmed.
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