PRINCETON, N.J. -- Consumers get a lot of mixed messages about salmon. For a food that's supposed to be healthy, salmon, perhaps more than any other protein, receives a lot of negative publicity. Recent scientific studies have turned up levels of PCBs and flame retardants in salmon. Some media stories have addressed the higher levels of contaminants found in farm-raised salmon compared to wild-caught salmon, and have suggested consumers choose wild over farmed. Other studies have raised questions about mercury and artificial coloring used to give the fish its coral color. At the same time, salmon contains high levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Though salmon remains the No. 3 most consumed fish in America, behind shrimp and canned tuna, sales have slowed down. The industry is working to reverse the trend. One key player in the marketing campaign is Alex Trent, executive director of Salmon of the Americas, a year-old trade organization representing 95% of salmon farmers in the United States, Canada and Chile. SN asked Trent to address the pollution controversies, and other issues facing the industry.
SN: More so than other proteins, salmon seems to be under constant scrutiny by scientific and environmental groups. Why is that?
Trent: Unfortunately for consumers, it has nothing to do with food-safety issues. These studies are dangerous not because they point out there are toxins in salmon but they'll scare people away from an inexpensive source of omega-3 fatty acids. The bottom line is environmental groups have issues with the salmon farming industry. I was told by an environmental activist of a major organization, "You get the hell out of British Columbia and we'll leave this alone. We don't want salmon farms in British Columbia."
SN: How are farmed salmon sales doing in light of the research that suggests wild salmon could be healthier?
Trent: Well, the research doesn't suggest that. The research states a bunch of mumbo jumbo. No research ever suggested wild salmon was healthier. If you want to get down to the nitty-gritty, farmed [salmon] has more omega-3 fatty acids on average [than wild]. We do not want to be the genesis of a salmon war in the supermarket. We supply retailers with signs on why we sell all kinds of salmon, wild and farmed. It's like comparing Merlot wine to Chardonnay. They're both fine but a whole lot different.
Trent: The honest to goodness truth, we know it has had an impact. [Sales] are slowing somewhat due to the negative news. That kind of news can't do you any good. We're working on taking a hard look at all that. Why has growth slowed? What can we do to rejuvenate it? We're in the evaluation stage. We've been in the market without any promotion. Now we're facing the next phase in salmon [marketing], not only farmed salmon. How do we penetrate into those consumers who don't naturally walk to the seafood counter to pick up our product?
SN: What impact do you expect the country-of-origin labeling law will have on the farmed salmon industry?
Trent: Will it help or hurt sales? That's a very good question. I think it'll have, in terms of logistics, no impact on us. It'll have an impact on retailers. They get farmed salmon from Chile and Canada. They have to label it. We're the most fortunate of seafood people on country-of-origin labeling. It comes in a box, "product of Chile" or "Product of Canada." We're in pretty good shape as far as logistics of labeling. What will this do since we've been smacked around in the press? A lot of consumers don't know what this is all about. We do not expect immediate impact of identifying this as farm-raised or wild as having a great purchasing impact on the consumer. Now we know about as many people prefer wild to farmed. People like the idea of farmed fish. They know where it comes from. We'll have to be prepared for continuing attacks from those saying farm-raised isn't good for your health. That's part of my job to inform consumers. We've done a good job of getting to the food influentials. It's very difficult to turn consumer media around. We're seeing some real 180s [180-degree turns]. Fitness magazine just ran an article in July saying, "Hey, there's something fishy about that recommendation [to eat only wild-caught salmon]." They did a monumental [about face]. We'll see more of it. We need to work to get the media turned around on farmed fish. We have a team of dietitians. We have a lot of influential people on our side.
SN: What new initiatives is the industry taking to convey positive messages about farmed salmon to consumers?
Trent: We're working media very hard. Some of the big, mainstream publications, you'll see articles in Good Housekeeping reiterating good points about farmed salmon. We've had editorial board meetings. We're starting to get the editorial turned around. No matter what we do with advertising, it's not as good as editorial. Right now, we're giving consideration to an expanded campaign that may include some direct-to-consumer promotion. That will require a lot of money. We're very satisfied with the results of the first year. We've only been doing this for one year. We need to do a better job of supporting our retail customers. We probably have not done as thorough a job [as possible]. We plan to have more meetings with retailers to support our members, and help supply retailers with what they need.
SN: What's your reaction to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's recent approval of qualified health claims for omega-3 fatty acids? How will that affect your industry?
Trent: I think it's great. It's been a long time coming. It's a start in the right direction. It'll be positive for seafood and especially positive for salmon. Part of our campaign now is not to denigrate other seafood, but people need to know if you really want omega-3s, you're really talking about salmon. This is the No. 1 source of omega-3s. Not all fish are created equal with respect to omega-3s.