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One Man's Opinion: Value-adding takes a nasty twist in New York

Peter Redmayne
Peter Redmayne
May 01, 2005

This summer, more and more retailers and foodservice operators will jump aboard the wild-salmon bandwagon — especially if the fish is fresh and has red meat (think king, sockeye and coho). If it’s boneless, that’s an added bonus.

But according to an article in the April 10 edition of The New York Times, some retailers and distributors didn’t want to wait until summer to cash in on wild salmon. A reporter for the paper purchased fish that was sold as wild salmon from eight markets in the city. The salmon was then shipped to a private laboratory, where tests were performed to determine if the fish were wild or farmed. When six of the eight samples proved to be farmed, the story became front-page material.

This winter, the demand for fresh wild salmon drove prices for kings from Southeast Alaska’s small winter troll fishery up to an unprecedented $6 a pound. Still, there were enough consumers willing to fork over $20 a pound for what they believed was a superior product.

Alas, with farmed fillets readily avail- able wholesale for about $3 a pound, the temptation to make $15 a pound on a piece of fish was simply too much for some people. When the reporter confronted the New York retailers with the test results, their response was laughable.

One retailer, who said his records did not go back more than a month, said his sales clerks “must have gotten the salmon from the wrong pile in the back.”

The manager at another store told the reporter, “Our salmon is from Canada. All wild salmon in Canada is farm raised.”

At one store, the reporter ordered a wild salmon and watched the fishmonger take it from a box marked “farmed Canada.” He told the reporter, “I know you are looking at the label,but believe me. Don’t pay any attention to the label.”

Not surprisingly, some retailers were quick to blame their vendors. Said one: “Sometimes when these fish come off the boat they get separated, and I got sent the wrong salmon from my supplier.”

Another claimed his suppliers could not provide him with paper trails. This begged the question why the retailer would pay such a high price for wild salmon from someone who could not show him a paper trail, which any reliable vendor would have no trouble producing.

It’s interesting to note that all the retailers involved were independents. With a few exceptions, such as Whole Foods, chain retailers won’t risk carrying wild salmon at such lofty price levels.

Is this salmon scam confined to New York? Probably not.

What’s worrisome about this latest exercise in seafood “value-adding” is
that more people who sell fish may see yet another opportunity to make a lot of money at the expense of consumers. Once again, state and federal officials have shown they are incapable of preventing what New York City commissioner of consumer affairs calls “a classic deceptive practice.”

One irony in this whole affair is that the Times story was published a few days after the federal government saddled the seafood industry and retailers with mandatory country-of-origin labeling. The feds ought to spend more time figuring out how to enforce existing laws before enacting new ones.

If consumers felt confident that the government was providing adequate protection from scams like this one, they wouldn’t have to worry about getting ripped off every time they buy a piece of fish. 

May 2005 - SeaFood Business

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