Salmon "pirates" are exploiting consumers by selling phoney "Scottish smoked salmon" in a trade worth an estimated pounds 50m. As much as half the fish sold on world markets may be counterfeit. "Scottish" names containing words such as "Mac" and "Glen" and tartan packaging are sufficient to fool many customers.
Passing off cheap Norwegian salmon or Danish trout as Scottish salmon enables unscrupulous firms to undercut the prices of bona fide Scottish producers. The counterfeit trade has had a serious effect on profits and jobs in Scotland, according to the Scottish Salmon Smokers' Association (SSSA), which is campaigning for stiffer penalties for pirates.
The scandal has come to light at a time of increasing anxiety about the verification of food. The current issue of Which?, the consumer magazine, highlights the widespread incidence of misleading labelling in the food industry.
Last month, Grant's Smoked Foods of Maryport, Cumbria, was fined pounds 4,000 at Taunton Crown Court after being found guilty of two offences under the Trade Descriptions Act. Grant's had supplied Smugglers restaurant near Minehead with fish labelled "Scottish oak-smoked salmon" which was in fact a form of rainbow trout.
On another occasion, in 1991, caterers received a letter headed "Loch Fyne Scottish Smoked Salmon". It waxed lyrical about salmon "traditionally cured and gently smoked over oakwood chippings" from a "very long-established traditional smokehouse ... on the west coast of Scotland". But the phone number on the price list - headed "Loch Fyne Smokehouse" - was of Grant's premises in the depressed Cumbrian town of Maryport.
The genuine Loch Fyne Smokehouse at Cairndow, Argyll, complained to Cumbria trading standards department. Grant's was subsequently fined pounds 2,000. Grant's also has convictions for selling underweight fish in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight.
Yesterday, Andrew Lane, managing director of Loch Fyne Smokehouse and chairman of the SSSA gold label committee, said: "It is a constant battle to make people aware of the difference between genuine Scottish smoked salmon and inferior imitations. They often assume that any smoked salmon is Scottish. One device is to pass off foreign salmon, usually Norwegian, as Scottish. Another is to sell smoked trout and call it salmon, as in the Taunton case.
"Quality Scottish smoked salmon should be translucent, midway between red and pink, and have a firm texture. Norwegian is pinker and fattier, with a pasty texture."
The SSSA's gold label scheme is meant to guarantee that smoked salmon carrying its logo is produced from salmon harvested in Scottish waters and smoked in Scotland. But, said Mr Lane, at the recent Boston Seafood Fair in the US "Angus MacDuff of Fife Scottish Smoked Salmon" was being sold in packets bearing a copy of the SSSA's logo - virtually identical except that "association" was missing. There is no smokehouse in Fife called "Angus MacDuff" and no such company belongs to the SSSA.
According to a report in the trade magazine Seafood International, the bona fide Scottish industry was worth more than pounds 87m in 1994, with pounds 24m sales in the UK and exports worth pounds 63m. But only 2.5 per cent of world smoked salmon sales are genuine Scottish smoked salmon; the other 97.5 per cent consists of correctly labelled smoked salmon from countries such as Norway and Canada, and a large amount of counterfeit "Scottish" fish. The SSSA estimates that counterfeit sales are worth at least pounds 50m annually and represent a loss of up to 700 Scottish jobs.
When the Independent on Sunday tried to contact Grant's managing director, Jonathan Brown, we were told that he was in the US and out of touch. Minutes later we received a call from a David McQuire. He said he was "a friend" who had heard from Grant's that we were investigating and wished to put the record straight. He said: "The salmon industry is all about competition. Everybody in the world is producing salmon. The Scots say theirs is the best. But it's farmed salmon. What's the difference from the farming in Norway, Chile or wherever? I know this company. They work bloody hard. When the Scots are still in bed, Jonathan Brown is out grafting.
"The Scots have lived on their reputation for 20 years or more. They can't beat Jonathan, so they badmouth him. They would love to see him go under. If they close him down it will put hundreds of people out of work."
We asked Grant's official public relations man, David Davis, how the company had come to be convicted of passing off trout as salmon. He said: "This is not a question of deliberately buying trout and selling it as salmon. That was never suggested in court. The trading standards officers investigated 16 packs of fish, of which one was found to be probably rainbow trout." The trout had "crept through" and the incident was "a mistake".
Last night the Consumers' Association's head of food and health research, Diane McCrea, said: "It is a scandal if people are buying any food product that is not what it claims to be. The relative quality of fish from various sources is not the issue. Consumers must have confidence that they are buying what they think they are buying."
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