Food News

Sustain, Gotham Steak, City Hall, and Others: Misleading Salmon Descriptions

Sustain Restaurant + Bar has developed a brand synonymous with greener eating. Deconstructed branches line its walls and lamps in natural shapes light up its vast open space, all contributing to a signature earthy feel. The menu lists ingredients with sources and location, and the restaurant strongly promotes its dedication to local food.

This feeling of sustainability all comes at a high price. Main entrées for dinner range from $18 to $30, a hefty cost for peace of mind.

But there's one item on the detailed menu that stirs up concern: the misleading salmon description. The dish described as "grilled organic Irish salmon" at Sustain lures diners to pay the listed $25 for the entrée because it's organic. The truth is, though, it isn't organic, at least in the United States. The USDA does not have established standards for organic seafood, and the description of "organic" salmon is an unregulated term in this country.

If you're dining at a restaurant that charges more than $20 for an entrée, chances are the salmon on the menu will have some sort of description attached to it. Like the "organic Irish" description at Sustain, origins of salmon are generally added to menus, denoting whether it comes from a specific location such as the Atlantic or the Pacific. What most diners don't know is that these origins are actually misleading, ambiguous labels. And if you are paying more than $20 for an entrée, there should be nothing misleading about whether the salmon on your plate was farmed or wild.

These misleading descriptions are not allowed in grocery stores. Congress instructed the USDA to develop rules for mandatory country-of-origin labeling on seafood in 2002 (COOL), which applies to major retailers and purveyors. It includes the labeling of whether fish is farmed or wild. But COOL, unfortunately, does not apply to restaurants.

Alex Piñero, the executive chef of Sustain, is aware the salmon is not certified organic in the United States. Piñero explains he opts for this particular salmon because it's superior to other varieties available. He adds it is certified in Europe. "If I can't get something local, I prefer to opt for organic," he says.

When a fish is labeled "organic" in the United States, it means companies are applying the organic guidelines for livestock to aquaculture and fish farms. For livestock, these regulations include clean, sustainable growing environments and organic feed. Most important, though, it means that if you are paying top dollar for so-called organic fish, you are trusting the purveyor to farm fish responsibly. It is not yet regulated by American law.

Piñero believes Sustain's salmon is raised properly, because the fish are kept in large pens and fed natural foods.

Note that Piñero believes this salmon is raised properly. This word says it all. "Organic" fish is farmed. It is not caught in the wild.

The farmed-versus-wild issue is complex and, within the range of farmed fish choices, Piñero might be making the best selection. But the concept of farming salmon stirs up a lot of health and environmental concerns. Careless farming might lead to concentrated releases of waste and might also harm the surrounding ecosystems, particularly if the farmed salmon escape the pen and invade wild salmon territory.

Alarms have also been raised in terms of the toxins in farmed salmon. Farmed variations are higher in PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), a toxic chemical.

Also, farmed salmon is fed synthetic pigment. Wild salmon feed on krill, which gives the fish their bright-pink flesh. This natural feed is also what fills their flesh with the healthy omega 3-fatty acids. The pellets given to farmed salmon, which are a combination of fishmeal and fish oil, contain colorants and pigments that turn their flesh a color similar to wild salmon's.

The "organic" Irish salmon at Sustain is fed phaffia yeast, a nonsynthetic pigment source that is also approved at major natural retailers such as Whole Foods. This, again, makes Sustain's selection a better choice versus other farmed options.

But other restaurants don't select farmed fish as responsibly as Sustain. Mandolin Aegean Bistro serves a "grilled Atlantic salmon" dish ($22), and Steve Haas's City Hall Restaurant ($22) offers a "sesame-seared North Atlantic salmon" dinner entrée. The description of those menu items might lead diners to believe the salmon was caught in the Atlantic. But that's not the case. Both restaurants confirmed that these salmon dishes are prepared with farmed salmon.

Salmon labeled as originating from countries in Europe, as was the case for Sustain's Irish dish, is also farmed. At Gotham Steak, a dish named "Scottish salmon" ($32) was confirmed as originating from a fish farm.

What Miami diners don't know is that almost all Atlantic salmon comes from farmed fish. The description "Atlantic" is thus misleading to the average diner.

Moreover, overfishing, pollution of rivers, and other environmental issues have caused wild Atlantic salmon to be placed on the Endangered Species List by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. It is thus illegal to fish wild Atlantic salmon. But because this variety of salmon is well suited for farming, it is the most popular worldwide farmed salmon in the world.

Despite the popular choice for farmed ("organic" or not) salmon, there are Miami restaurants serving wild-caught salmon. Michy's, owned by James Beard Award-winning chef Michelle Bernstein, offers the properly titled dish "wild salmon" ($34). When I called to ask about the origin of their salmon, it was confirmed that not only is it wild-caught, but also it originated in the Pacific Northwest. It was also confirmed that its specifically an Alaskan king salmon.

Pacific salmon, including salmon from Alaska, is among the most intensely regulated species in the world. Fish populations and fishing methods are carefully regulated by government institutions and nonprofit organizations, making Pacific salmon the best choice, according to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, a leading nonprofit that researches and denotes scores for types of fish according to sustainability.

So why don't all restaurants serve wild salmon? Well, it's an issue of seasonality and price.

Pacific salmon spend their early days in rivers but then migrate to sea during their youth and adult lives. For spawning, most Pacific salmon will return to the river where they were born. They are typically caught by fishermen on their way to spawn in rivers, which occurs between the months of May and August.

Because of the issue of seasonality, it's likely you will be served previously frozen wild salmon if you are eating it during the off-season. There are exceptions, since wild salmon can be troll-caught in the ocean before maturity (before heading to spawn).

Piñero of Sustain said he might purchase wild salmon when in season if the price is right, because off-season fish can get pricey and scarce.

Michy's is the exception to the previously frozen rule. A representative from the restaurant confirmed that their salmon arrives fresh, not frozen. This explains the high price for that dish, which costs $34.

Michelle Bernstein labels her salmon as wild because it is something to be proud of, and also something to pay top dollar for. Farmed fish, on the other hand, is ambiguously labeled with misleading terms such as organic, Atlantic, North Atlantic, Irish, or Scottish.

If you are paying $32 for a farmed fish at Gotham Steak, the menu description should not read, "Scottish." To the unknowing guest, this does not imply farming. It implies being wild-caught in Scotland.

Environmental issues, the quality of life of the fish, and the possible existence of toxic chemicals are the concerns when dealing with misleading salmon descriptions. The issue at hand in Miami is how restaurants manipulate descriptions of dishes -- at the expense of the unaware diner.

All in all, if restaurants are charging more than $20 for an entrée, they should be clear about the origin of their seafood. Farmed or wild. It really is that simple.

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Emily Codik