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August 6, 2020

Belfast salmon company lawsuit raises questions about ‘Maine’ marketing

File Photo Don Cynewski is general manager of Ducktrap River of Maine, and a 2014 Mainebiz Next List honoree.

A Belfast producer of smoked salmon is being sued by a public-interest group that claims the company and its owner are misleading consumers about where the fish come from.

The Organic Consumers Association accused Ducktrap River of Maine and Mowi ASA of deceptive marketing practices in a suit filed last week with the District of Columbia Superior Court.

The 29-page complaint alleges that Ducktrap and Mowi, a Bergen, Norway-based company that is the world’s largest producer of Atlantic salmon, falsely advertised Ducktrap products as sustainably sourced, “all natural” and originating from Maine.

"Most consumers choosing a smoked Atlantic salmon product with the words 'all natural' on the package would be surprised to learn that that salmon was raised in a crowded pen where it was treated with artificial chemicals, including pesticides and medically important antibiotics," OCA International Director Ronnie Cummins said in a news release Tuesday.

"Ducktrap River of Maine targets those consumers, even though the company's practices are not consistent with consumer expectations."

The suit does not seek monetary damages, but asks the court to find Ducktrap and Mowi in violation of a consumer protection law and to forbid such marketing and advertising.

Ducktrap General Manager Don Cynewski told Mainebiz Thursday that the company had not yet received documents in the lawsuit and so could not comment on it.

The OCA, based in Minnesota, frequently criticizes the marketing of products as sustainable or natural. For example, in May the nonprofit group sued Smithfield Foods Inc., a national producer based in Virginia, for allegedly false claims about its pork products. The OCA has sued multinational conglomerate Unilever over the marketing of its Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

But the suit against Ducktrap also involves a different question — what it means for a product to be “from Maine.”

In its complaint, the OCA claims the company's words "tend to mislead consumers" into believing the salmon is sourced within the state. The OCA cites some of Ducktrap’s packaging, which describes “naturally smoked salmon from Maine.” Ducktrap’s page on Facebook also refers to “the finest naturally smoked seafood from the coast of Maine.”

Ducktrap and Mowi do not source any salmon from Maine, according to the parent company’s 2019 annual report. The Ducktrap website notes: “The majority of our salmon is sourced through our own farms in Scotland, Norway, Iceland and Chile.”

However, Ducktrap smokes salmon and other seafood with “local apple, cherry, maple and oak woods,” the website explains.

Other packages make no mention of the product’s source, or are ambiguous. For example, packaging for one Ducktrap line simply refers to “Atlantic salmon” below the company logo reading “Ducktrap of Maine.” Smaller print reads “naturally smoked in Maine.”

Ducktrap’s roots in Maine date to 1978, when founder Des Fitzgerald started a trout farm on Kendall Brook in Lincolnville. Fitzgerald soon added a smokehouse, expanded into salmon, and moved to a Belfast production facility in 1991. The company was acquired in 2007 by what is now Mowi, which last year had revenues of $5 billion, 15,000 employees and operations in 25 countries.

In 2018, Ducktrap completed a $5 million, 50,000-square-foot expansion of the plant at Belfast Airport Business Park. With 160 workers, the company was one of Belfast’s largest employers, Mainebiz reported at the time.

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