A recent case in New York City illustrates why it's important for seafood buyers to stay away from sharks and know the difference between wild and farm-raised fish.
In a front-page story, The New York Times pointed a finger at a handful of specialty stores who were selling farm-raised salmon labeled as wild and retailing for premium prices. The case underscored why it's crucial for retailers to be vigilant when purchasing seafood. Retailers must know their suppliers, do background checks before working with new vendors and learn how to distinguish between wild and farm-raised species, industry sources told SN.
"Wild salmon look different, taste different and have a different texture," said Steven Jenkins, a member of senior management, imports division, perishables, specialty foods, at three-unit, upscale Fairway Markets, New York. "Anyone, even a shopper who pays attention, should be able to tell the difference. If the fish is in fillets or steaks, as it usually is, all he has to do is look for lines of white fat. If they are evident, it is farmed salmon. If there are no lines of white fat, it is decidedly wild."
Tests performed for The New York Times on salmon sold as wild by eight Big Apple stores showed that the wild fish at six of the eight stores were farm-raised. (Fairway was not included in the story.) As a result, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs has started an investigation, and the Alaska State Attorney General's office has offered its cooperation.
Jenkins and other sources said they did not believe the New York retailers named in the Times article knowingly mislabeled their salmon. In fact, some sources laid the probable blame at the feet of fish jobbers who fill in when supplies are diminishing. The jobbers buy in bulk and re-sell product to retailers and restaurants, but they're transient and sometimes downright dishonest, one industry expert said.
"Even the best retailers sometimes need jobbers and [the jobbers] might take advantage of the untrained help you find in too many retail stores. Associates need some training and retailers need to keep their eyes open and pay attention."
Vigilance is especially important now that country-of-origin-labeling regulations are in effect for the seafood industry. The law places the responsibility on the retailer for accurate labeling and requires unprocessed seafood sold in retail stores be labeled as "farmed" or "wild."
While retailers on the West Coast told SN they have no trouble identifying wild salmon by sight -- even in fillet form -- it is often a different story on the East Coast and in the Midwest where supermarkets only recently started carrying wild salmon.
"I have no trouble visually identifying wild salmon, but I've been in the seafood business nearly 40 years," said David Levy, seafood manager, at upscale Central Market, an independent retailer based in Shoreline, Wash. "I don't know how it is on the East Coast or how it would be if they're doing other things [handling several product categories], too. I'm not cutting or cooking lamb chops or doing other ordering. I strictly deal with retail seafood. We also have very long-term relationships with our vendors."
Durell Herman, buyer/ merchandiser, meat/ seafood, at Larry's Markets, a chain of six stores based in Kirkland, Wash., offered similar comments.
"I don't worry about anyone substituting farmed salmon for wild. I know wild on sight, and then with the new COOL legislation, it has to be noted on the invoice whether it's farmed or wild as well as where it came from," Herman said. "Anyway, if a supplier tried anything like that, they'd be gone tomorrow. They know that."
However, that's not to say West Coast companies never misrepresent products.
"We'll begin to see some Taku River salmon passed off as Copper River as soon as the Copper River season opens. There are wholesalers who do that sort of thing," said one retailer from a small Washington town.
Referring to the New York City expose, one Midwest source said, "I'm not very surprised. It's not just New York. I saw salmon labeled 'wild' two and a half weeks after the recent wild [trolling] season had closed. It wasn't refreshed product, either."
Other sources thought it was odd that such mislabeling in more than one retail store could take place in this era of regulation, and wondered why any retailer or wholesaler would knowingly put their reputation on the line.
"In this day and age, I'm surprised," said one industry veteran from the Pacific Northwest who requested anonymity. "Mislabeling food violates federal law. There's a paper trail that wasn't followed. Retailers need to know their suppliers and be able to trust them. They need to ask questions."
John Connelly, president, National Fisheries Institute, McLean, Va., underscored that sentiment.
"Most seafood suppliers welcome the opportunity to bring retailers into their operations and savvy retailers seize this opportunity to poke and prod their suppliers to ensure they're providing the level of good seafood consumers expect," Connelly said. "Good retailing is about trust and it's crucially important that consumers believe their seafood retailers are up to snuff. NFI urges fish/ seafood retailers to work with reputable suppliers wisely."
Retailers told SN they didn't expect the news from Manhattan to affect their sales of wild salmon. The retailers said they've been dealing with the same suppliers for years and have visited the fisheries. What's more, their customers trust them to be honest, the retailers said.
"We cringe when we hear things like [mislabeling]," said Jersey Niedzwiecki, meat/ seafood sales manager at Rudy's Newport Market, an upscale, single-unit market in Bend, Ore. "If you're raised on the West Coast, you know the product, you can see the difference when it comes in. On the East Coast, it may be different, but education is the key. Knowing and being able to trust your supplier is best, but retailers shouldn't be afraid to ask questions of their distributors."
Jack Gridley, meat/ seafood director at Dorothy Lane Market, a three-unit, upscale retailer in Dayton, Ohio, said he goes to the source -- all the way to Alaska -- to make sure he's getting what he orders.
Last summer, the company started looking for ways to extend the selling period for fresh, wild salmon. Gridley visited fisheries in Homer and Soldovia, Alaska, and then processing plants. He followed the trail from the catch on boats to Homer where the refrigerated fish is gutted and then on to Anchorage where it's filleted, packaged and prepared to be flown to air express delivery company DHL's hub in Wilmington, Ohio.
"It's in our stores 36 hours after it's caught, and we know what we're getting," Gridley said. "What we were doing last summer was selecting different harvest areas, following the river run in Alaska [to ensure a more constant supply]."
Dorothy Lane has been sourcing wild salmon, including Copper River, from trusted suppliers for nearly 10 years. Based on his years of seafood buying, Gridley offered this advice for other retailers.
"Make sure you know your suppliers, visit them, check on them and then check your deliveries. Ask for paperwork. The supplier is required by government regulations to have documentation and is required to show it. Also, retailers should educate themselves. For instance, they should know when seasons open and when they close."
Retailers and distributors have revved up their knowledge level when it comes to wild salmon, said Pat Shanahan, marketing director for Alaska Troll Salmon Processors Association, Seattle, which represents the hook-and-line-caught salmon industry.
"I'm finding that there has been a tremendous increase in education from, say five years ago. The level of education is up and definitely expanding" to the East Coast, Shanahan said.
"These guys on the West Coast have been buying all kinds of salmon for years, but now distributors and retailers in the Midwest and on the East Coast are acquainting themselves with the different varieties and quality levels."
The New York mislabeling story shows how important it is for retailers to have a trusting relationship with their distributors, she said.
"One thing retailers could do is ask their distributor to describe their traceability system. We, for instance, issue a certificate with each sale. The wild, trolled fish is tagged right on the boat."
All salmon from Alaska is caught wild. In fact, the state does not allow fish farming operations. So chances are, if salmon's origin is labeled USA, it is wild, because there's practically no salmon farming in this country, sources said. In that respect, COOL legislation will be helpful.
"Penalties for non-compliance under COOL regulations are steep -- $10,000 per violation -- and we encourage companies to comply to avoid penalties and to send the message to consumers that theirs are reliable products," said NFI's Connelly.
Below is a list of questions retailers can ask their seafood suppliers to make sure the wild salmon delivered to stores is authentic. SN compiled the list in consultation with seafood industry sources.
- Does your processor, distributor or broker sell both farmed and wild seafood?
- If they are handling both, how are they keeping the products separate? Ask for quantifiable proof.
- How are you, the retailer, keeping farmed and wild separate in the warehouse, distribution center and seafood case?
- What proof can you show the seafood counter sales associates and consumers that the products you are selling are farmed or wild?
- How do you address product identity mix-ups?
In addition, industry sources offered the following tips for retailers:
- Have your processor, distributor or broker identify all the companies involved in handling your seafood from boat to retail outlet.
- Know the tasks of each company (re-icing, boxing, freezing, filleting) and have them give written proof that each piece, box, truckload or container is farmed or wild.