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Facts Left Behind in Race to Repost “Viral” Farmed Salmon News Posts

Widely-reposted story about salmon feed pigment additives is based on incorrect information - Cermaq sets the record straight

March 25, 2015

“A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

That’s a quote the late, great Terry Pratchett often used in his Discworld novels. And it’s been proven time and time again.

This past week provided an interesting example from the world of salmon farming and how the media reports on food.

It all started with an article by Gwynn Guilford posted in the online Quartz magazine, a publication aimed at readers interested in global business.

The article is all about the carotenoid compounds in farmed salmon feed which give the fish flesh a pinkish-orange colour.

“Wild salmon get their ruddy shade by eating krill and shrimp, which contain a reddish-orange compound called astaxanthin. (That shrimp-heavy diet is also what turns flamingos pink),” Guilford writes. “Like their wild cousins, farmed salmon come in a spectrum of pinks and oranges, depending on diet. But it’s the farmers—and not the food chain—that determine the salmon’s color.”

True. And as Guilford points out, “sometimes it’s made ‘naturally’ through algae or pulverized crustaceans; other manufacturers synthesize the compound in a lab, using petrochemicals.”

Why is a 30-year-old practice suddenly news?
These compounds have been common in the salmon farming industry for 30 years. However, it’s a topic that percolates to the surface of the collective consciousness of Internet media every now and then, constantly finding new audiences.

After Guilford’s story was published March 12, it was immediately re-published by other media associates of Quartz and has been replicated almost every day since then in other locations. Trying to map it out would look like the spiderweb of cracks that grow from a windshield rock chip.

In the last week, dozens of versions of the story have appeared in blogs, Facebook groups, discussion forums, news aggregators, social media postings and numerous mainstream media outlets, including Yahoo Finance. That doesn’t count Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest and the many other places it has popped up.

Pigment is actually a tiny fraction of feed cost
Unfortunately, there are big problems in the original article that have gone unnoticed in its rise to viral fame, which have now been irrevocably spread to all corners of the Internet. The biggest problem is Guilford’s statement that “Pigmenting supplements are the most expensive component of the farmed salmon diet, constituting up to 20% of feed costs.”

This is not true.

In our farmed salmon diet, pigment is only 2% of our total feed cost. It used to be expensive 20 years ago, when we used more of it and sources were scarce, but a lot has changed.

Guilford’s source for this claim is a feed trial at an organic rainbow trout farm in Denmark. This is hardly indicative of the salmon farming industry; perhaps because the farm is organic, it can only use the much more expensive natural and organic-certified pigment supplements instead of the much cheaper nature-identical versions used in aquaculture feed.

However, the problem is now that in just one week, in the collective consciousness of the Internet, “Pigment makes up 20% of salmon feed costs” has now become a common misconception, something that people have heard so many times that they think it just must be true.

People used to call those “old wives’ tales.”

Strange economics
Guilford suggests that these (incorrect) pigment costs drive up farmed salmon costs, which are offset by how farmers can “churn out fillets at an industrial clip.” However, she continues, this harms fishermen because “an abundance of farmed salmon forces fishermen to lower prices of their wild-caught salmon.”

This doesn’t make a lot of sense. If salmon farmers were forced to sell their product for a higher price because of higher costs of production, it’s a higher price, plain and simple. Fishermen would be rejoicing if farmed salmon production costs were higher, because that would mean the overall market price would drive up wild prices, too, because farmed and wild salmon price baselines have been linked for decades.

Farmed and wild salmon complement each other in the marketplace
Her solution, as she recommends in the last paragraph, is that consumers demand salmon farmers remove the pigment from salmon feed and sell grey fish, allowing wild fishermen to sell wild salmon at lower prices.

This isn’t a solution, since the pigment costs are in reality an insignificant part of the overall feed cost. Plus, why would fishermen want to sell their fish for less? Since farmed salmon was introduced to the market in year-round abundance decades ago, wild salmon fishermen and marketers have found many ways to adapt and promote their products in a way that demands premium prices.

For example, one marketer has found a way to market “ivory” salmon, a rare type of Chinook (king) salmon that has a genetic variation giving it very pale flesh, much like how Guilford imagines farmed salmon would look without any pigment in the feed. They are asking $30 per pound, and people are paying it.

There’s plenty of room in the marketplace for both farmed and wild salmon, and customers are happy to continue buying more of both. All salmon, farmed or wild, is a great part of a healthy diet and as health experts urge people to eat more seafood, demand for all salmon is only going to increase.

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