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Fixing Something Fishy

May 23, 2003

Notice anything different lately at the supermarket fish counter? Not the ultra-bright pink/orange hue of the salmon -- that's been there for years. But on the sign in front of those fillets: "Color Added."

For five years, federal regulations have required retailers to label farm-raised salmon and trout as artificially colored. Most grocers complied just a few weeks ago, after a Seattle law firm sued three big supermarket chains -- Albertson's, Safeway and Kroger, which owns Ralphs.

The chains didn't bother fighting the law. Less than a week after the suits were filed, they announced new labeling policies. Other markets, including natural-foods mecca Wild Oats, did the same. But the time they took to obey a consumer regulation -- and the lack of enforcement -- is inexcusable.

Without artificial coloring, farm-raised salmon would be gray. So the artificial tint, usually an additive called canthaxanthin, is added to the fish feed.

Debate rages over whether this is cause for concern. Research links canthaxanthin to retinal damage. Many experts say it takes huge amounts, far more than one could ingest in a lifetime of broiled fillets, to cause harm. But the European Union, saying the coloring could build up in the eye over time, has restricted its use in feed to less than one-third the level allowed in the United States.

It's up to informed consumers to make their own choices. But how can people choose without the basic information that the fish is artificially colored? A representative of Kroger said the company didn't know about the law until it was sued. The other two companies would not comment because of the lawsuits, which still seek damages.

Kroger's excuse rings hollow. It's the industry's job to know the law and follow it. Not that the Food and Drug Administration, which promulgated the regulation, has been any help. An FDA official says the agency publishes its rules in the Federal Register and leaves it at that. It does nothing to ensure that the industry and consumers know. The FDA lacks the resources to enforce its rules, the spokesman said.

Who knows how many other laws are lurking, unfollowed and unenforced, in the Federal Register? Consumers shouldn't need lawsuits to find out.

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