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The UK's Smoked Salmon Is Covered in Lice and Shit

Farmed salmon are literally living up shit creek, often suffering from chronic sea lice that quickly become immune to chemical treatment. But the even shadier side of smoked salmon is what happens when it hits the factory.

When I first moved to London, I thought the smoked salmon Brick Lane bagels were the dog's bollocks. I mowed through piles of them, constantly. Gluten-free wasn't much of a thing back in 2007. In 2007, cream cheese was my water and greasy brown paper the lining of my soul.

More disturbing than that reality is that my former doughy dependence is symbolic of a wider fishiness. As a nation, our taste for smoked salmon now far outstrips natural supply. We're all sailing on the good ship salmon with Captain Impunity at the wheel.

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Once served as a treat in silky slices of preserved coral, smoked salmon is now an everyday product of divergent quality. A packet of smoked salmon trimmings costs about the same as a packet of posh crisps. Two bags of salty scraps, but two very different products.

Some of these salmon are literally living up shit creek.

But should we care? With an onion pletzel and copious lemon juice, most smoked salmon tastes pretty much the same to the average eater, right? And, in a world when fresh fish is barely within shopping budgets, sometimes talk of provenance can pretty much sod off.

But if we're talking ethics, then yes, we should care. The production of smoked salmon is, in places, a realm murkier than the depths of Loch Lochy. Some of these salmon are literally living up shit creek.

Both catching the raw product and the process of getting it into packets are subject to corner-cutting and dubious practices. Industrial-scale producers cow to supermarket demands, something traditionalists and lobbyists are keen to challenge. And they're not a quiet bunch.

The anti-salmon farm league is particularly keen to raise a stink. These guys are the nemeses of the supermarket, whose supposed commitments to responsible seafood do smell pretty rotten.

Author and fish farm critic Bruce Sandison asserts that farmed fish swim in circles and become flabby. The fat content of the resulting smoked salmon can be "higher than that of a Margherita pizza", hitting up to 14g per 100g.

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Sandison sent me a report on the Norwegian farms that dominate North Sea waters, and thus the salmon we eat. They operate under different laws—in Norway, fish feed can be made from swine and poultry pellets made of guts, feathers, and bones.

Salmon farms also suffer from chronic sea lice that quickly become immune to chemical treatment.

This then passes through as excrement, polluting the aquaculture not only of the shitty farm itself, but also, as they're often situated in narrow channels, the surrounding water. Farms also suffer from chronic sea lice that quickly become immune to chemical treatment. These lice then escape the farms and kill passing wild salmon.

But fish farms are an imperfect solution to a sustainability crisis, and they could work with better regulation and more investment.

Andrew Graham-Steward from the Salmon & Trout Organisation (S&TO) has a long-term solution. "In-land containers are the only way of operating in a way that keeps wild and farmed salmon separate," he says. "It's happened elsewhere in the world, but it needs huge capital investment, so it probably won't happen in the UK for a while."

When it comes to the relationship between supermarkets and fish farms, Graham-Steward says sometimes only surface checks are carried out before striking deals. S&TO is engaged in an ongoing complaint with Sainsbury's, whose Taste the Difference salmon is tagged as "responsibly sourced." S&TO claims it's anything but.

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"Scottish" salmon, farmed in Norway. Photo courtesy of Bruce Sandison.

"Supermarkets are keen to play on their green credentials, but the Sainsbury's case isn't a one-off," says Graham-Steward. ASDA was stung this year after using a salmon farm with a shocking sea lice problem.

And beyond the small print and greenwashed packaging, manipulative marketing can be employed in-store. This year, both Tesco and Aldi were caught craftily placing the St. Andrew's cross in aisle displays, making Norwegian salmon appear to be of Scottish origin.

There are political aspects, too. Scotland's trade deal with China sent demand for salmon flying, meaning scores of domestic stock are now set for export (not helped by a Chinese ban on Norwegian salmon, allegedly due to distain that Liu Xiaobo was granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010).

But these issues affect the fish industry as a whole, not just salmon. The even shadier side of smoked salmon is what happens when it hits the factory. The most ethically sourced salmon can easily be ruined by cost-cutting practices.

The fish needs to be left for a few more days for rigor mortis to subside, meaning some of the fish is close to expiration when packaged.

Lance Forman, garrulous owner of small-batch East End smokehouse H Forman & Sons, says his larger competitors save money by choosing Norwegian salmon—if it's smoked in Scotland, it can be labelled "Scottish"—which takes up to four days to arrive in the UK, eating into the salmon's shelf life.

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"Slicing machines are used to save on labour costs but they require soft salmon flesh," Forman says. "So the fish needs to be left for a few more days for rigor mortis to subside, meaning some of the fish is close to expiration when packaged."

There's a weight problem, too. "Before it's smoked, fish needs to be salted, which sucks out weight. Then the smoking itself reduces the weight by another ten percent. To get around this, some producers inject or cover the fish in a water brine." To control the saltiness, this is sometimes leveled out with sugar. Just check the nutrition on a packet of cheap salmon.

Forman also says some smoked salmon doesn't even go near a kiln, and instead spray-on or liquid smoke is used. (Granted, fake smoke is a thing, with potential health risks at that.)

It's all very well that Forman disses his competitors—what good businessperson doesn't—but is there any proof of this? He points me towards an industry video of "artisan" salmon production, making no less than 21 interjections: "He's not got a glove on!" "Look at those conveyor belts!" "They're just chucking the salmon onto a unrefrigerated van!!!"

Forman admits that a premium range of salmon in a supermarket can be of a passable quality—some packets even include the name of the farm. But budget lines are chewy and flabby, with occasional pinbones.

One packet of budget salmon lists its provenance as "farms in Ireland, Scotland and Norway", but at least it's honest. Marks & Spencer carry a range of "Lochmuir" salmon, and guess what? Lochmuir is a completely fictional place.

To some extent, all smoked salmon is bullshit—no one product is squeaky clean. Artisan producers use salmon farms. The most sustainable wild salmon comes all the way from the Pacific. Packaging will always skirt the law.

The only solution? Stop crying into your bagel and get saving for your own smokehouse already.