According to the New York Times, Chinese regulators announced this week that, far from cracking down on mislabeled fish, rainbow trout can legally be labeled as salmon.
Incorrectly labeled fish – whether accidentally or intentionally – is a worldwide issue. Reports have indicated that much of the world’s fish is mislabeled; the advocacy group Oceana ran a test and found that one in five fish samples were mislabeled worldwide. Sometimes these are understandable: can you really tell the difference between red snapper and red sea bream? Other times, these are way off, and can be a major problem for consumers who want to eat ethically – or simply know what they’re eating.
Trout and salmon are part of a wide-ranging family of fish called salmonids, which also includes char, grayling, and some whitefish species. They all look sort of similar – they’re primitive-looking fish with sharp teeth – but vary dramatically in size, distribution, and sustainability. Some are freshwater, some saltwater. Some live in the Atlantic, some in the Pacific, some in various lakes and rivers.
The rainbow trout, like the char, has a pale orange to pink flesh. It is not as dark as the flesh of most salmon species, nor as fatty, but it’s similar enough. But it is not the same; rainbow trout are freshwater and salmon are saltwater fish, which means they’re raised (if farmed) entirely differently and have totally different environmental and health concerns. Freshwater fish is more prone to parasites; it is generally not recommended that freshwater fish is eaten raw.
Following the reports of rainbow trout being sold as salmon, Chinese regulators officially declared that the two species are similar enough that they can be sold under the name “salmon.” According to the Global Times, the government’s argument is lexical: they say that, since both species belong to the salmonid family, they can be labeled as “salmon.” In other words, the word “salmon” is more like a shorthand for “the entire salmonid family of fish,” rather than the more widely understood meaning of “the nine species of Atlantic and Pacific fish that are actually called salmon.”
The New York Times says that the Chinese government is mandating a light label to this effect, so trout might carry the label “salmon (rainbow trout).” Presumably, salmon could have the label “salmon (salmon).”