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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Fresher Than Fresh, a Gastonia-based seafood distributor, has been substituting Atlantic Salmon with Steelhead Trout in shipments to area grocery stores. The result was mislabeled fish sold to consumers which is a violation of Food and Drug Administration guidelines.
A person with knowledge of the operations at Fresher Than Fresh says the substitutions have been happening since the spring of 2009.
"We would have to go ask in the morning what we were using, whether we were using salmon or steelhead," said the source who spoke to WBTV on the record, as long as the person's name was not used.
Determining the difference between Atlantic Salmon and Steelhead Trout is visually difficult and there is no health risk to eating one over the other.
The motive according to our source was money. Steelhead Trout historically has been less expensive than Atlantic Salmon.
Fresher Than Fresh supplies salmon to several area grocery store chains, but the source says substitutes were only sent to Food Lion stores.
In early March, WBTV bought two packages of fish labeled Atlantic Salmon. One was purchased at a Food Lion store. The second came from a Harris Teeter store. Samples were sent to a DNA lab in Florida.
Dr. David Price, a University of Florida professor, conducted the testing. Price determined the sample from Harris Teeter was Atlantic Salmon. The fish from Food Lion was Steelhead Trout.
"It's about a dollar a pound difference," said Fresher Than Fresh President Ronnie Wrenn when first contacted about the DNA testing results. He said the Steelhead Trout was the less expensive of the two.
Wrenn said Food Lion may have mislabeled the fish. He then said it's possible his workers, who move up 30,000 pounds of salmon a week, made an isolated mistake.
"It couldn't have been anything system-wide," said Wrenn.
"It's completely untrue," said the source who spoke to WBTV.
When asked if Fresher Than Fresh knew it was sending the wrong product, our source said "correct, yes, absolutely." The source said Food Lion did not know it was getting substitutes.
WBTV did more testing to make sure it wasn't an isolated incident. Over the next month, 13 more samples from Food Lion stores were sent to the DNA lab in Florida. Ten of the samples came back as Atlantic Salmon. One was typically more expensive Sockeye Salmon, but two others were identified as Steelhead Trout.
Samples were also sent from fish purchased at Bi-Lo, Lowes Foods and Bloom. All came back as labeled.
Wrenn initially told us he would meet to answer questions about the findings. He changed his mind and in a later voicemail changed what he told us about prices.
"We can prove that there was no financial gain," said Wrenn. "In fact, the average cost of the fish over this period in question was four cents a pound higher."
He was now saying Food Lion got more expensive fish, but he also admitted Food Lion didn't know it was getting substitutes.
"We'll admit that we were wrong," said Wrenn on the voicemail. "We're going to take the consequences, but it wasn't, it's not this big deal."
Fresher Than Fresh then offered a written statement (scroll below to read full statement). It didn't offer documented proof on prices and the statement makes clear the substitutions weren't isolated. It says the amount of Steelhead sent "was less than ten percent" and "the time period was shorter than a year."
Fresher Than Fresh's statement also says "top management was not aware of the situation, but some employees were. Their motive was simply to supply a customer with the amount of high-quality product ordered."
It was a product Food Lion says it did not order.
A Fresher Than Fresh spokesperson said only Food Lion got the substitutes. He didn't say why Food Lion was singled out and couldn't explain how top management would be unaware this was happening.
An attorney for Fresher Than Fresh says "arrangements have been made for the shipments to be fully investigated and confirmed by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.
Inspectors from the state were at the Fresher Than Fresh facility on Thursday.
As for Food Lion, it ended up with mislabeled fish under FDA guidelines in its coolers and sold to its customers. The company is not happy about it.
"We are appalled that our customers and our company were victims of intentional and deceptive...practices by Fresher Than Fresh." said the company in a written statement (scroll below to read full statement). "We do not tolerate this type of activity and as a result are no longer doing business with Fresher Than Fresh."
Food Lion says it is conducting its own investigation and has removed fresh Atlantic Salmon provided by Fresher Than Fresh from its stores. The company also says it's enhancing its seafood policies and inspection procedures. It will be conducting random testing of its products. The testing will be done by a third party laboratory.
The company says it will cooperate fully with regulatory authorities.
Food Lion customers can return fresh Atlantic Salmon to stores for a refund.
Copyright 2010 WBTV. All rights reserved.
Food Lion Statement
Food Lion is committed to providing quality, wholesome products to our customers. We are appalled that our customers, and our company, were victims of intentional and deceptive practices by Fresher Than Fresh. We do not tolerate this type of activity and as a result, we are no longer doing business with Fresher Than Fresh. We expect all suppliers to adhere to strict specifications, guidelines, and all applicable local, state and federal regulations. We will cooperate fully with the regulatory authorities regarding the unacceptable actions of Fresher Than Fresh.
Upon learning about this situation, we immediately pulled all salmon products from our shelves at stores serviced by this supplier until an investigation could be completed. In addition, we immediately began testing products from all suppliers and conducted plant inspections at other suppliers. Going forward, random sampling and DNA testing procedures, and plant inspections will be part of our routine procedures.
We want to assure our customers the product was safe and we will provide a full refund to any customer who wants to return fresh salmon purchased at Food Lion. Again, we deeply regret the intentional and deceptive practices of Fresher Than Fresh committed against our customers and our company.
Fresher Than Fresh Statement
Fresher Than Fresh regrets that a small amount of steelhead salmon was sent to some Food Lion locations substituted for Atlantic salmon. The amount was less than 10 percent of product ordered and the time period was shorter than a year.
Top management was not aware of the situation, but some employees were. Their motive was simply to supply a customer with the amount of high-quality product ordered. The steelhead salmon shipped was of quality equal to or higher than the Atlantic salmon ordered.
This situation has not happened before. Since learning of it in late April, the company has performed an audit of internal procedures and has instituted new employee practices to ensure this situation will not happen again.
These two species of salmon are closely related. They are almost identical in taste, appearance and character. They originate from the same salmon farms in Chile. Each is often offered at supermarkets. There were no complaints from customers.
No health questions are involved in the substitutions. No financial gains were realized by the distributor. In fact, the distributor lost money in this situation.
Fresher Than Fresh has built a strong reputation for service and quality. The company is sorry for the situation and will redouble efforts to offer the best products in the future.