DNA testing has proven that the sale of farmed Atlantic salmon fraudulently labelled as wild salmon is a widespread problem, according to a new report.

The study by conservation group Oceana used 82 samples gathered in grocery stores and restaurants in the United States to uncover widespread salmon mislabelling.

A whopping 43 per cent of the samples were found to be mislabelled, and more than two-thirds of those were Atlantic farmed salmon being passed off as wild salmon.

Wild salmon products fetch a premium in the marketplace, usually costing up to a third more.

Josh Laughren of Oceana Canada says the U.S. findings mimic Canadian studies that have shown consumers here are also frequently duped by mislabelled seafood.

He says there needs to be more transparency and accountability in the seafood industry.

"The answer is a system that actually requires traceability and labelling so that there is some assurance that you're getting what you think you're getting," said Laughren.

"You can track your UPS package from halfway around the world to your door in real time," he said. "The technology is there. We just haven't required it from seafood, and we should."

Unscrupulous bad actors

Fisherman Dane Chauvel of Organic Ocean Seafoods in Vancouver says mislabelling is a quick and easy way for unscrupulous players in the salmon industry to increase their margins.

"It's bad actors that are trying to profit by misrepresenting and mislabelling an inferior product and trying to pass it off as a higher-quality product," he told CBC News.

Mike McDermid, a former marine biologist who now co-owns Vancouver's Fish Counter seafood shop, says consumer interest in sustainable seafood is growing, and so should the regulations around it.  

"Seafood is the most complex of our food systems," he said  

"It changes hand on average five to six times. There has to be some form of regular testing at the source, a DNA fingerprinting analysis or something like that."

Josh Laughren agrees, but feels the issue is much bigger than assuring that a piece of wild salmon sashimi on your lunch plate is actually what the menu or label says it is.  

"With seafood being part of what we need to feed a growing world, it's a great source of sustainable protein if we do it well," he said.

"I think there's no question that tackling this transparency and accountability issue is critical in ensuring the long-term health of our oceans and health of a really critical food supply.

Key findings

Key findings in the Oceana study include:

  • 43 per cent of salmon samples collected and tested were mislabelled.
  • The most common form of mislabelling was farmed Atlantic salmon being sold as wild salmon — 69 per cent.
  • Restaurants wrongly identified salmon five times as often as grocery stores.
  • Salmon is less likely to be mislabelled in-season versus out-of-season, especially in restaurants.
  • Products that include additional information like the type of salmon (chinook, sockeye, coho, etc.) were less likely to be mislabelled.

With files from Meera Bains