Sustain, Gotham Steak, City Hall, and Others: Misleading Salmon Descriptions

Categories: Buyer Beware
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Sustain Restaurant + Bar has developed a brand synonymous with greener eating. Deconstructed branches line its walls and lamps in natural shapes light up its vast open space, all contributing to a signature earthy feel. The menu lists ingredients with sources and location, and the restaurant strongly promotes its dedication to local food.

This feeling of sustainability all comes at a high price. Main entrées for dinner range from $18 to $30, a hefty cost for peace of mind.

But there's one item on the detailed menu that stirs up concern: the misleading salmon description. The dish described as "grilled organic Irish salmon" at Sustain lures diners to pay the listed $25 for the entrée because it's organic. The truth is, though, it isn't organic, at least in the United States. The USDA does not have established standards for organic seafood, and the description of "organic" salmon is an unregulated term in this country.


If you're dining at a restaurant that charges more than $20 for an entrée, chances are the salmon on the menu will have some sort of description attached to it. Like the "organic Irish" description at Sustain, origins of salmon are generally added to menus, denoting whether it comes from a specific location such as the Atlantic or the Pacific. What most diners don't know is that these origins are actually misleading, ambiguous labels. And if you are paying more than $20 for an entrée, there should be nothing misleading about whether the salmon on your plate was farmed or wild.

These misleading descriptions are not allowed in grocery stores. Congress instructed the USDA to develop rules for mandatory country-of-origin labeling on seafood in 2002 (COOL), which applies to major retailers and purveyors. It includes the labeling of whether fish is farmed or wild. But COOL, unfortunately, does not apply to restaurants.

Alex Piñero, the executive chef of Sustain, is aware the salmon is not certified organic in the United States. Piñero explains he opts for this particular salmon because it's superior to other varieties available. He adds it is certified in Europe. "If I can't get something local, I prefer to opt for organic," he says.


When a fish is labeled "organic" in the United States, it means companies are applying the organic guidelines for livestock to aquaculture and fish farms. For livestock, these regulations include clean, sustainable growing environments and organic feed. Most important, though, it means that if you are paying top dollar for so-called organic fish, you are trusting the purveyor to farm fish responsibly. It is not yet regulated by American law.

Piñero believes Sustain's salmon is raised properly, because the fish are kept in large pens and fed natural foods.

Note that Piñero believes this salmon is raised properly. This word says it all. "Organic" fish is farmed. It is not caught in the wild.




Location Info

Venue

Map

Mandolin Aegean Bistro

4312 NE 2nd Ave., Miami, FL

Category: Restaurant

City Hall Restaurant

2004 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL

Category: Restaurant

Michy's

6927 Biscayne Blvd., Miami, FL

Category: Restaurant

FB Steakhouse

4441 Collins Ave., Miami Beach, FL

Category: Restaurant

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19 comments
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tired&kranky
tired&kranky

Who gives a shit anyway?  Also, paying somewhere in the $20 range for a cut of salmon is really not that unheard of...the fact that its certified organic in Europe at that price is actually a bargain.

Brian
Brian

As the owner of SUSTAIN, I would like to make a fewcomments. I wanted to respond sooner but I have a business to run and OrganicSalmon to sell.  First, many thanks toMr. Frodnesor for his support. No, he is not on our payroll nor does he eathere for free.  He occasionally gets afree dessert or appetizer but only because he loyal patron.   To Cat,you definitely pulled the Chilean Seabass comment out of your ass.  We never sold that fish here. Not onlybecause its considered endangered but because its such a copout fish for a chefto sell.  Now regarding the article andthe author, Emily Codik. I’m not sure what we did or Alex did to upsetyou.  Everything in this article iscomplete BS.  Not sure where you dine at thatdoesn’t have entrée items between $20 and $30. I’m assuming its Denny’s orMcDonald’s. Anyway, our prices have nothing to do with “piece on mind” butsimple proper profit margin based on cost. Regarding the salmon and if its Organic or “organic”.  i really don’t  give a shit. I know its the best product thatis readily available.  I would rather notsell salmon, but as a business owner its not what I want but what the publicrequests.  Emily, you diminish every goodthing that we are trying to do.   

Cat
Cat

Can we talk about the fact that a restaurant named "Sustain" has Chilean Seabass on their menu, when Chilean Seabass is considered endangered.   

Frodnesor
Frodnesor

You've pulled that out of your ass. I've never seen Chilean Seabass on the menu at Sustain.

Rossini45
Rossini45

Woah, tremendo Sustain fan much? do you eat there for free or what? Mabe tu eres their abogado?

Frodnesor
Frodnesor

Yes, I like the restaurant. No, I don't work for them and I don't eat there for free (and if they do send out a little something extra, I try to make it up with an extra tip, a habit that makes me both fatter and poorer). B.S. is B.S. - and that Chilean Seabass comment is B.S.

Schwettin
Schwettin

This is a BS commentary right from the get go.

Why would anyone ever expect Salmon to be anything other than "farmed" Salmon at any locale unless one is purchasing directly from the fisherman or catching it oneself? Most ingredients at most restaurants, even the best, are not much different than what one can buy at a major market that quickly turns over its fresh meats, dairy and produce. Obviously, there are exceptions. But those exceptions are just that, "exceptions."

I accept that Michy's is an exception. But, also, by definition, exceptions are few and far between.

occupyff
occupyff

The only "green" here is what people are being asked to dole out for this "farce" of a label. Farmed Salmon simply cannot be organic or sustainable, it's a joke to even consider doing so. 

ZacharyFagenson
ZacharyFagenson

Who actually orders the salmon at restaurants? Old ladies and morons. That's who. Get that gross stuff from publix, slather it in butter/lemon/garlic bake for 13-16 minutes and enjoy. Jesus.

Johnsmith
Johnsmith

The whole "organic" food industry needs to be strictly and legitimately regulated, but can we really trust the "regulators?" Most of the local outdoor markets and restaurants are NOT selling us what they claim.  I won't thrown any particular locations or establishments under the bus, but I was not too surprised to see boxes from everywhere but USA being unpacked at more than one "local" market.  Maybe when they say "local" they mean from a local distributor.  Having grown my own fruits and vegetables without any chemicals it's easy to taste the difference in the food, but not always %100 guaranteed or accurate.  Anyway, all we can do is our best to eat healthy and hopefully the food tastes good too!

or·gan·ic   [awr-gan-ik]  Show IPAadjective1.noting or pertaining to a class of chemical compounds thatformerly comprised only those existing in or derived fromplants or animals, but that now includes all other compoundsof carbon.2.characteristic of, pertaining to, or derived from livingorganisms: organic remains found in rocks.3.of or pertaining to an organ  or the organs  of an animal,plant, or fungus.4.of, pertaining to, or affecting living tissue: organic pathology.5.Psychology . caused by neurochemical, neuroendocrinologic,structural, or other physical impairment or change: organicdisorder. Compare functional ( def. 5 ) .

Frodnesor
Frodnesor

This is a worthwhile issue and there is some useful information here but unfortunately there is some unnecessary confusion too, and some pretty shaky accusations of "misleading" labeling.

First you say the USDA doesn't have established standards for labeling seafood as "organic" - then just a few paragraphs later you supposedly explain what it means when fish is labeled "organic" in the US. If there are no established standards here, there are no established standards. The issue of what "organic" means for fish and seafood is a tricky one - some think farmed fish can never be considered organic b/c it's an inherently unnatural process; others will say that wild fish can never be certified organic because you have no way of knowing what they've eaten. Which is probably why the USDA hasn't passed regulations yet.

But if the fish Sustain is using *is* certified organic by the EU - and the US doesn't have its own set of standards yet - then what is misleading about calling it "organic" on the menu?

There's also nothing about the terms "Atlantic" or "Pacific" (or listing a country of origin) that suggests that fish is either farmed or wild.  Unless you think salmon are being farmed on ranches in the middle of Kansas, it seems pretty reasonable to surmise that the salmon farms are located in one or the other of the major oceans. What is it about "Scottish salmon" that suggests that it's either farmed or wild-caught?

Put another way: if you're smart enough to care about whether your fish is farmed or wild, then you're probably also smart enough to figure out that listing the place of origin doesn't tell you anything about how it was produced. Just like knowing where your beef comes from doesn't tell you a thing about whether it's grass-fed or grain-fed.

Emily Codik
Emily Codik

There are no legally established standards in the US for USDA Organic fish. Nonetheless, the word "organic" is popping up in restaurants and supermarkets. The explanation offered in this piece explains what the word "organic" means to the companies placing the word on their packaging. 

This word is very different from USDA Organic (capital O), a legally regulated term. The word "organic", which is in Sustain's menu, has a meaning apart from the USDA regulated standards. 

It is misleading because consumers might not understand the difference between the word Organic (capital O) and the term "organic", in quotations. The menu at Sustain implies that these words are interchangeable. They are not.I also think you are confusing the terms regarding Atlantic or Pacific Salmon. Atlantic Salmon (or Salmo salar) is actually a species, which originally could have been wild-caught in the Atlantic Ocean. As I mention in the piece, this species is now considered Endangered and can only be farm raised. Therefore, saying Atlantic Salmon is a misleading, sugar-coated word for saying farm raised. When you're paying over $20 for an entree, the use of the word "Atlantic" is clearly a way to encourage diners to order it for a meal.Lastly, Atlantic Salmon can actually be farmed anywhere in the world, even in a closed container in the middle of Kansas. There are actually some closed-containment Atlantic Salmon farms in West Virginia, if you prefer having a fish from there. 

Frodnesor
Frodnesor

Sustain is using "organic" on its menu for a product that is certified as organic by the EU, and for which no such certification is available in the US because the government hasn't promulgated standards for it. Unless the EU's standards are so wildly different from the general understanding of that term here, there's nothing remotely misleading about the menu description.

I'm also not remotely confused about Atlantic and Pacific salmon. Atlantic salmon is indeed a species, and any Atlantic salmon you consume in restaurants and supermarkets is pretty assuredly farmed. So what could possibly be misleading about accurately describing Atlantic salmon as "Atlantic salmon"? That's exactly what it is, and there is nothing about the description that suggests one way or the other that it's either wild or farmed (though anyone with a modicum of knowledge and concern on the subject will know that Atlantic salmon is generally farmed).

And what is misleading about describing salmon that comes from Scotland as "Scottish salmon"? What in that description suggests that it's either farm-raised or wild-caught?

You do a service to readers by explaining the differences between Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon, between farm-raised and wild. You do a disservice to restaurants by accusing them of giving misleading information for actually giving accurate descriptions of what they're selling.

Emily Codik
Emily Codik

I think it just comes down to a difference of opinion. You think that adding "Atlantic", "Irish", "Scottish" to the salmon menu listing does not imply to diners that this fish was wild-caught. You don't think these descriptions are misleading. 

You are also an experienced diner and food blogger, one who is aware about the origins of fish and the conditions in which they are grown. Many people are not aware of these issues.I, on the other hand, do think that these descriptions are misleading and that they do imply that the fish was wild-caught, not raised. I do appreciate your insights very much though. Thanks for commenting!

Frodnesor
Frodnesor

COOL requires grocery stores to label fish as farmed or wild precisely because country of origin info does not tell you how it was produced - not because it's misleading. And the same labeling requirements do not apply to restaurants, so if you think they should, it's you who needs to "take it up with the USDA."

I'm not an advocate for farmed Atlantic salmon by any means - 95% of what I've had is tasteless, pasty crap, without even getting to the environmental issues. But I'm also not a fan of legislating the content of restaurant menus, provided what's there is accurate - and I think you've just invented the notion that saying "Atlantic salmon" or "Scottish salmon" on a menu (when it's accurate) somehow suggests the fish is wild-caught.

If you care and want to know if the fish is farmed or wild, just ask your server.

Emily Codik
Emily Codik

COOL requires grocery stores to label fish as farm or wild, AND to include the country where the fish was raised. COOL and the USDA clearly see how simply listing a country of origin (or region) can mislead the consumer into thinking it was wild-caught in that region, thus leaving a loophole for purveyors to charge higher prices through mislabeling. However, if they list whether it was wild-caught or farmed (in addition to the origin), there is no more confusion and no more room for loopholes.

If you think that not listing whether farmed or wild-caught is perfectly acceptable, then I suggest you take it up with the USDA.Because of the health and environmental concerns listed above that are associated with farm raised, I believe that restaurants should also clearly label their fish as farm-raised or wild-caught. Plain and simple. Clear labeling is important for consumer protection, so you don't pay for an expensive dish thinking it's a wild product, when it's farm-raised. I personally rather have my salmon without toxic chemicals or environmental waste. I don't know about you, but this is a big deal to me and merits a CLEAR, non-misleading label.

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