Fishy classification of trout baffles salmon lovers

Zac Lowell
Like many other foreigners in Shanghai, I sometimes find myself hankering for the foods of my native place.
Zac Lowell

Like many other foreigners in Shanghai, I sometimes find myself hankering for the foods of my native place.

For me, this usually means seafood. No offense to the culinary traditions of eastern China, but boney river fish and hairy crab are no substitute for the north Atlantic fare that I grew up eating in New England.

Fortunately, one taste of home that’s always been relatively affordable and accessible in Shanghai has been salmon.

True, it may not be the species that I’m used to, but the salmon here has generally satisfied my seafood cravings when they arise.

For this reason, I was troubled to learn that a seafood industry association, the China Aquatic Products Processing and Marketing Alliance, released group standards earlier this month which allow rainbow trout to be classified — and labelled for sale — as salmon.

Apparently many others were similarly appalled, according to survey data released earlier this week by the Shanghai Consumer Council which showed 80 percent of respondents saw the move as misleading. Some even went so far as to say they would no longer consume “salmon” from the Chinese mainland because of the new policy.

A recent Shanghai Daily article on the matter cited an expert who attributed the new standard, in part, to a feature of the Chinese language, which does not distinguish salmon from trout. There are other such ambiguities in the Chinese language; for example, the word yang can mean both “sheep” or “goat,” which caused some head-scratching a few years ago as to whether China was celebrating the Year of the Goat, or the Year of the Sheep.

Furthermore, meat from the two fish are basically indistinguishable in appearance, making it even easier for vendors to pass off one species as the other. As this paper pointed out, river trout is cheaper than salmon, creating a consumer rights issue.

Vendors have a responsibility to inform shoppers about what they are buying; and if shoppers purchase “inferior” products that are falsely labeled as premium items, this is clearly problematic in moral, if not legal, terms.

There are also potential health hazards as well, since rainbow trout contain different, and potentially more harmful, bacteria and parasites than those carried by salmon.

One of the big changes I’ve seen in Shanghai since I arrived more than 10 years ago has been a growing concern for health and wellbeing, starting with the foods that people eat.

It’s no secret that China has seen its share of food safety scandals over recent years.

Some of these scandals have been tragic, some absurd, and some downright vile; but their cumulative effect has been a demand for healthier, safer and more transparently-labeled foods.

The government deserves credit for supporting this change as well, with forceful efforts from authorities to regulate the food industry, promote accountability and punish rule-breakers.

By labelling trout as salmon, what we’re also seeing is a return to the sort of sloppy, cha bu duo-style thinking which I assumed was becoming a thing of the past in China’s food industry.

Salmon and trout are clearly different species, despite a certain fuzziness in appearance and naming. I’m not surprised that the industry’s intentional blurring of the two fish has met with so much criticism from consumers, many of whom expect more from their foods than they did even a few years ago.

I will certainly think twice before sitting down with salmon sushi, or a salmon bagel, two of my favorite comfort foods.

According to the latest reports, talks on this controversial matter are still underway between industry representatives, consumer rights advocates and lawyers.

I hope that recent industry standards on the salmon-trout distinction can soon be counted as a temporary setback to consumer rights and the regulation of the food industry.

Progress, after all, should be measured in more distinctions, more information and more transparency; not less.

The author is a former copy editor at Shanghai Daily.

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