Friday, January 23, 2009

The Color of Farmed Salmon is No Dye Job

A couple of days ago, USA Today printed a story regarding counterfeit foods. That's essentially the practice of taking a product and labeling it as something else in the supermarket. Here's an interesting explantion that includes a quote from our friend Gavin Gibbons at the National Fisheries Institute:
Fish is the most frequently faked food Americans buy. In the business, it's called "species adulteration" — selling a cheaper fish such as pen-raised Atlantic salmon as wild Alaska salmon.

When Consumer Reports tested 23 supposedly wild-caught salmon fillets bought nationwide in 2005-2006, only 10 were wild salmon. The rest were farmed. In 2004, University of North Carolina scientists found 77% of fish labeled red snapper was actually something else. Last year, the Chicago Sun-Times tested fish at 17 sushi restaurants and found that fish being sold as red snapper actually was mostly tilapia.

"It's really just fraud, plain and simple," says Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute, an industry group.
When SOTA members (salmon producers from North and South America) ship their product, it's labeled as farmed, and that's the way it should stay. But the problems with the story began with the following quote. Due to some editing error at the paper, the person who said the following was not correctly identified, but a little digging and a conversation with the reporter, USA Today's Elizabeth Weise, revealed that the person in question is Spring Randolph, a safety officer with the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition:
"When you cook it, the wild salmon retains its color, and in the aquaculture salmon, the color tends to leak out," she says. Suspicious consumers can call the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Nutrition hotline at 1-888-SAFEFOOD.
Huh? We should back up here for a moment. In the wild, salmon consume this natural pigment -- called a carotenoid -- while feeding on krill. Salmon flesh, like trout, retains this pigment, giving it the pleasing pink flesh the fish is famous for. Besides changing the color of the flesh, this carotenoid is also a powerful antioxidant and pro-vitamin A source. The industry maintains that it also influences the growth and survival of young salmon.

In salmon aquaculture, the industry endeavors to mimic the diet that salmon would normally get in the wild, so it supplements salmon feed with a synthetic replacement. It's called astaxanthin, and chemically, it's identical to the pigment that salmon get in the wild. Biologically, it's processed and absorbed by wild and farmed fish in exactly the same manner, though some species retain more color than others.

The bottom line is simple here: we're not talking about the sort of food coloring you buy at the supermarket and use in a cake mix. The color of salmon flesh, no matter how it's raised, can't leak. It's physiologically impossible.

So how did that quote get into USA Today? As I mentioned earlier, I got hold of the reporter, Elizabeth Weise, via phone on Wednesday evening. I explained the science to her and asked how Ms. Randolph had backed up her preposterous claim and if she had cited any study that might back it up. At the time, Weise said that Randolph had told her she had observed this phenomenon while cooking salmon in her own kitchen. Weise added that because Randolph was an employee of the FDA, she had no reason not to doubt her expertise.

To say the least, I was taken aback, and I pressed Weise to contact FDA again to see if they could produce any evidence to buttress Randolph's claim. Late at home on Thursday evening, I received the following response from Weise:
FDA says that Spring Randolph was speaking from her own experience, not FDAs. So there's no research paper she can point to to support her statement. However it doesn't call for a correction, because we did not quote the FDA expert incorrectly, that's exactly what she said.. I think the best way for you to make your point would be to send in a letter to the editor.
I disagreed and insisted that the paper was obligated to print a correction or a clarification. Instead of a letter to the editor, I'll be sending talking to her editor at the paper, Sue Kelly. Stay tuned for further developments.

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