Trout or salmon? New Chinese labels make no distinction

New rules mean rainbow trout can now be labelled and sold domestically as salmon

A surefire way to confuse your server in a restaurant in China these days is to ask if the fish dish contains rainbow trout or salmon.

New rules introduced in China mean rainbow trout can now be labelled and sold domestically as salmon, after reports showed that the striped freshwater variety of fish had been labelled as salmon for years, and authorities decided to simply allow the practice to take place.

The renaming has echoes of the 2,500-year-old concept from the ancient sage Confucius, of zhengming, which translates as rectification or correction of names as a means of maintaining social order. In this case, a rainbow trout is called a salmon because it behaves like a proper salmon. It also has elements of the more recent concept of doublespeak.

Although rainbow trout are freshwater fish, salmon start their lives in fresh water before growing up in saltwater. The fish look different on the outside but inside they are remarkably similar, with reddish meat.

Both fish are members of the salmonidae family, and now salmon will be standardised under the “umbrella name” for the two fish, according to a ruling by the China Aquatic Products Processing and Marketing Alliance, which is associated with the Chinese agriculture ministry.

Raw debate

A report on the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV in May revealed that a third of fish sold as salmon in China was actually rainbow trout from Qinghai province.

There have been concerns about the renaming, especially when it comes to eating raw fish – raw salmon is a different kettle of fish to raw trout.

With consumers’ nerves still jangled by revelations about faulty vaccines and regular food scares, some people have expressed concern that rainbow trout are more susceptible to parasites.

The China Fisheries Association reassured sushi fans that it was safe to eat salmon raw as they were bred in safe and quarantined conditions.

“Whether salmon has parasites does not depend on whether it is bred in seawater or freshwater,” the association said.

The China Aquatic Products Processing and Marketing Alliance promised to improve the labelling of fish to ease consumer fears.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing