Alaska's new attorney general has offered a helping hand to a New York prosecutor investigating farmed salmon fraudulently sold as wild in six of the city's high-end markets.
The New York Times published an investigative report in April, backed up by scientific testing of purchased fish, showing that six out of seven city markets were selling farmed fish labeled as wild.
As a result, the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs opened an investigation and has recently issued subpoenas to alleged violators, Alaska state officials reported last week.
"We have offered to assist in the investigation in any way necessary to stop these violators," state Attorney General David Marquez wrote in a May 10 letter to Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.
Many states, including New York, treat false labeling with the intent to defraud as a misdemeanor. In addition, Alaska is developing a law that would require labeled wild and farmed fish at its fish counters and restaurants.
"It's frustrating and illegal," said Elton of the New York case. He helped develop Alaska's fish labeling law through legislation last year.
"Since the 1980s, we've spent tens and tens of millions of dollars building a brand name for Alaska wild fish," Elton said.
At Elton's April 19 request, the state has assigned Assistant Attorney General Ed Sniffen, in the Department of Law's consumer affairs division, to work with the New York investigators.
Sniffen said Friday he suspects this sort of fraud likely happens in many large cities across the country.
"Right now we don't know if it is a widespread problem. The only way to (prove it) is to have a hit squad that does inspections of salmon," Sniffen said.
"Whose got time?" he said, adding that New York got lucky in this case because of the newspaper's testing.
The newspaper paid a North Carolina laboratory to test levels of natural and artificial pigments in fish purchased at seven stores - a technique used by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Only one store's "fresh wild" salmon actually tested wild.
One of the six stores investigated by the New York Times claimed its supplier, Alaskan Feast, sold Alaska troll-caught king salmon to the store.
As the paper reported, a salmon purchased from the store and tested by the lab was labeled as "Rainforest" from Washington state and a second salmon as "Columbia River."
The owner of Alaskan Feast denied to the paper that it had sold fish carrying those labels, saying it would have been impossible to get any fresh wild salmon from the West Coast that time of year.
One fish tested by the North Carolina lab and sold by a Whole Foods grocery store in the Chelsea neighborhood appeared to be a fish farm escapee that was sold as wild, according to the paper.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game reports that about 577 non-native farmed Atlantic salmon have shown up in Alaska waters since 1994.
Though it may be difficult for a typical U.S. fish consumer to tell the difference, Alaska fishermen can immediately distinguish an Atlantic salmon and are inclined to report it to Fish and Game, said Sarah Gilbertson, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Atlantic salmon are considered an invasive species in Alaska waters.
"An Atlantic salmon looks a lot different than any of our Alaskan salmon. It would probably look more like a Pacific steelhead," said Mark Vinsel, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska.
Vinsel said the state's fishermen are so concerned about farmed invasive fish that they are "generally on the lookout and turn them in to Fish and Game."
Vinsel said strict adherence to fish labeling rules at the national level is critical to Alaska fishermen who, in most cases, don't control the ultimate fate of their fish.
"We need to differentiate our product in the marketplace," he said.
Sniffen said he has spoken to the New York City consumer affairs attorney assigned to the case, Elizabeth Lang, and she "seems to be fairly dedicated."
"If they need us to step up and do some work with them, we'll be more than happy to help out," he said.
Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at Elizabeth.firstname.lastname@example.org.
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