Salmon to Dye For

by Mary E. Alexander

If you’re a fish eater, you may have noticed some new labeling in your grocery store. The nation’s three largest grocery chains, Albertsons, Kroger, and Safeway, have agreed to put labels on farm-raised salmon.

Why the need for labels? Farm-raised salmon is not as natural as it sounds. These fish are fed a synthesized pigment that turns their farm-raised flesh – which would be gray without the additive – the pink hue that we’ve come to associate with salmon. Turns out, only wild salmon, which eat foods such as shrimp and krill that contain naturally occurring pigments, have rosy flesh.

The artificial pigments fed to salmon are canthaxanthin and astaxanthin. These manufactured additives are a synthetic version of natural pigments in the same family as beta-carotene.

“Call it a dye, natural coloring agent, additive, or compound, pigment, carotenoid, or whatever, it’s still being added to keep farmed salmon from looking pale and gray,” said Bill Mott, Director of The Ocean Project & SeaWeb Aquaculture Clearinghouse in Rhode Island.

The new labels on farm-raised salmon will inform consumers that color has been added to the fish. According to the trade publication Supermarket News, Kroger said that all farm-raised salmon and trout sold by them will include labels with the words: “color added.” When Kroger announced its new labeling plan, company officials stated, “[T]he supplements do not affect the taste or nutritional value of the fish. [W]e are modifying the product labels to share this information with our customers.”

Safeway said, in addition to labeling the fish, it would add signs to the fish counters. The grocery chains were prompted to inform shoppers because of a lawsuit maintaining that these stores failed to disclose the use of the coloring agents. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers the added pigments safe for consumption, the lawsuit points out that the FDA has required labeling since 1995 for any product that contains artificial colors.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued Interim Voluntary Country of Origin Labeling guidelines including the requirement for all fish to be labeled as wild-caught or farm-raised and by country of origin. These guidelines are set to become mandatory in September 2004.

“The salmon farming industry may not exactly have an interest in ‘enhancing consumer awareness’ of salmon origin, not to mention the origin of the desirable pinkish-red color – lest health-conscious consumers get confused about the health benefits of carotenoids [yellow and red pigments found naturally in various plants and animals], and start avoiding farmed salmon altogether,” said Mott.

“Americans like labels and we should be able to quickly discern whether fish is farmed orwild caught, and where it’s from so we can make responsible choices,” he added. The European Union (EU) is a step ahead of America on this issue. EU Food Health Commissioner David Byrne announced in January that the pigment canthaxanthin has been linked to eyesight problems. Scientific assessments have shown that a high intake of the additive produces an accumulation of pigments in the retina, affecting sight,” said Byrne.

As a result of the scientific evidence, the EU has cut the maximum amount of canthaxanthin allowed in farmed salmon by at least two-thirds. The new limit become effective on December 1.