Farmed or Wild Salmon,
by John Spano
What could unite such fierce competitors as Bristol Farms, Costco, Safeway, Albertsons, Whole Foods Market and Trader Joe's? Fish-eating consumers who want to know whether the salmon in the stores' display cases is wild or farmed.
The grocery companies have formed an unlikely alliance to fight a bid by 11 consumers who contend that California markets have failed to clearly distinguish salmon caught in the wild from its farm-raised cousin, which contains red dye to appear more palatable. It's a claim grocers deny.
"I'm very concerned about what I put into my body," said one of those who filed suit, Jennifer Kanter, 32, a Los Angeles sales professional who grew up in Seattle, where she fished for salmon.
Though federal and state laws require suppliers to clearly label salmon containing dye, officials from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the California Department of Public Health acknowledge that because of limited resources, they don't enforce the rule.
The California Supreme Court has scheduled arguments for next week.
Salmon is big business. It is a food recommended by the American Heart Association, and consumption of it has quintupled in 16 years. Much of the demand is met by the farm-raised variety.
Critics say salmon farming poses concerns. The fish are raised in nets in bays and inlets; excess fish meal and waste from the fish cause pollution. The meal, used to fatten the salmon, contains small amounts of dioxin and PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, according to a study cited by the plaintiffs. The fish waste harms the ocean's ecosystem, scientists say.
Concerned that the labeling rule wasn't being enforced, Kanter and others went to court three years ago contending they should have the right to demand such information from suppliers when authorities fail to do so.
Federal law requires that packaging clearly identify fish containing dye with such words as "artificial color," "artificial color added" or "color added." California has an identical disclosure requirement.
The original lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages and class-action status, alleges that consumers bought unlabeled dyed salmon that was sold by "the nation's largest and most sophisticated grocery chains." The argument was rejected by lower courts and is now before the California Supreme Court.
Rex Heinke, attorney for Kroger (parent of Ralphs), Safeway and Albertsons, said the job of enforcing the labeling rule is up to federal regulators, not consumers.
"The holding is not limited in any way to food coloring," said Craig Spiegel, a lawyer for the consumers. "The decision says whenever conduct violates both state and federal law, consumers cannot go to court to enforce the regulations."
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