Food labeling 101: GMO, organic, and other common grocery labels decoded

A quick, easy guide to nine commonly seen (and misunderstood) food labels, from 'GMO' to 'grass-fed.'

4. Wild-caught vs. farm-raised

Mary Knox Merrill/Staff/FIle
Farm-raised salmon from Canada is sold at New Deal Fish Market in Cambridge, Mass.

Definition: These two labels apply to seafood, and they’re fairly self-explanatory: wild-caught fish come from seas, rivers, and other natural bodies of water; farm-raised fish are raised in tanks, irrigation ditches, and ponds. There’s a bit of a gray area, too, in the form of fish hatcheries, where farm-raised fish are released into the wild for commercial fishing purposes.

What it means for you: Wild-caught fish are widely thought to be a healthier choice – they live longer lives and more diverse diets than farm raised fish. But they are a source of environmental concern. Some wild fish are caught using damaging techniques, including drift nets. Some are caught via less destructive means, like hand lines and cage traps.

Farm-raised fish, meanwhile, are generally cheaper, but can be less nutritious. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), farm-raised salmon has higher fats and less protein than its wild-caught counterparts.

Regulators are still working out the kinks in fish labeling. A 2006 Consumer Reports study found that about half the salmon in supermarkets sold as “wild-caught” were frequently farm-raised. Recently, a survey from Oceana, a nonprofit ocean protection group, found that one-third of the fish bought between 2010 and 2012 were probably mislabeled.

But shoppers, take heart; the survey found that grocery stores were the vendors most likely to be selling fish with honest labels, and many are taking steps to address issues of sustainability and transparency. On the sustainability front, looking for the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) label is a good place to start.  

Consumer Reports recommends asking plenty of questions at the counter: “Before deciding what fish to buy, ask the person behind the counter (or the server in a restaurant) which fish, if any, is in season, and where and how the fish was caught or farmed. Ask for the manager (or chef) if you aren't satisfied with the answers or want to learn more. Just letting the seller know that customers are interested might raise his or her consciousness about the seafood being sold.”

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