PhotoWhen you shop for fish at the grocery store or order from a restaurant menu, salmon is usually labeled either “farm raised” or “wild caught.”

For some it might not make much of a difference, but for those who prefer salmon taken in the wild, a study conducted by the environmental group Oceana may be disconcerting.

After collecting 82 salmon samples from restaurants and supermarkets, Oceana researchers determined that 43% of the samples were mislabeled. In nearly 70% of the cases, DNA testing confirmed farmed Atlantic salmon was being sold as wild caught.

“Americans might love salmon, but as our study reveals, they may be falling victim to a bait and switch,” said Beth Lowell, senior campaign director at Oceana. “When consumers opt for wild-caught U.S. salmon, they don’t expect to get a farmed or lower-value product of questionable origins. This type of seafood fraud can have serious ecological and economic consequences.”

Fishermen take a hit

Lowell says consumers aren't the only ones losing when this happens. She says American fishermen are being cheated when cheaper farm raised fish lower the price for their more expensive catch.

Scientists are divided over whether farm raised or wild caught is more nutritious. However, a 2004 study found a higher level of contaminants in farm raised salmon.

In this case, however, Oceana says the issue is labeling. It says if you pay extra for wild caught salmon, that's what you should get.

But Oceana says it found mislabeled salmon everywhere it tested, not just one or two areas. In Virginia, it says 48% of samples were mis-identified. In Washington, DC, is was 45%. It was 38% in Chicago and 37% in New York.

The survey considered salmon samples to be mislabeled if they were described as being “wild,” “Alaskan” or “Pacific,” but DNA testing revealed them to be farmed Atlantic salmon. Secondarily, the samples were flagged if they were labeled as a specific type of salmon, like “Chinook,” but testing revealed them to be different species – in most cases lower-value fish.

Most wild caught goes to exports

“While U.S. fishermen catch enough salmon to satisfy 80% of our domestic demand, 70% of that catch is then exported instead of going directly to American grocery stores and restaurants,” said Dr. Kimberly Warner, report author and senior scientist at Oceana. “It’s anyone’s guess how much of our wild domestic salmon makes its way back to the U.S. after being processed abroad. Without traceability, it is nearly impossible to follow the fish from the farm or fishing boat to the dinner plate.”

As a result, what ends up on our plates, she says, is mostly cheaper, imported farmed salmon, sometimes masquerading as U.S. wild-caught fish.

The study found consumers were five times more likely to find mislabeled salmon in restaurants than grocery stores. It also says consumers are less likely to be misled in large grocery store chains that are required to give additional information about seafood.

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