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Caviar Fact Check: Why caviar is expensive

Caviar Star's next fact checker puts a Business Insider video to the test. This article, detailing the history surrounding caviar's high price tag, might not account for the recently lowered market prices of farmed caviar, but still paints a fairly decent picture of what caused wild caviar to become such rare delicacy.

We broke down the article's text, paragraph by paragraph, and highlighted the portions that needed fact checking. The highlighted areas were color coded to grade the accuracy of the provided information, followed by our explanation and/or correction in matching text color.

 Green:  true or mostly true

 Yellow:  not exactly true or exaggerated truth based on factual information

 Red:  not true or mostly false

"Caviar is one of the most expensive foods in the world. Selling for up to $35,000 per kilo, it's revered and relished by aristocrats across the globe. But it's an acquired taste. Turns out, caviar wasn't always so valuable. In the 19th century, sturgeon species in the US were so common that there are accounts of caviar being offered in saloons for free, like bar nuts. In Europe, fishermen were feeding the eggs to their pigs, or leaving it on the beach to spoil. What changed?"

 Guiness World Records: The most expensive of all caviar, and indeed the world's most expensive food is 'Almas', from the Iranian Beluga fish - 1 kg (2 lb 3 oz) of this 'black gold' is regularly sold for £20,000 (then $34,500). Almas is produced from the eggs of a rare albino sturgeon between 60-100 years old, which swims in the southern Caspian Sea where there is apparently less pollution. 

 Yes, this did actually happen with true sturgeon caviar on some occasions, but rarely with the more expensive, higher quality malossol caviar. In bars (not just in the US but around the entire world), cheaper and saltier caviar was sometimes used to make patrons drink more, and unwanted lower grade product was fed to animals or otherwise thrown away. 

"Similar to true champagne, caviar doesn't come from just anywhere. This, for example, is not caviar. To get the real thing, it has to be eggs from a sturgeon. There are 27 species around the world in North America, Europe, and Asia. But probably not for long."

    Since this article/video is catered to a mostly American audience, it would be more correct to say "true caviar doesn't just come from anywhere", or something similar. While in some parts of the world it is illegal to label eggs from non-sturgeon species (such as the salmon roe at 00:50) as caviar, here in the US we call most salted fish roe that's consumed as a delicacy "caviar."

"Arne Ludwig: In this case, sturgeon will die out because humans are over-harvesting their populations and destroying their habitats.

In 2010, the International Union for Conservation of Nature placed 18 species on its Red List of Threatened Species, making the sturgeon the most endangered group of species on Earth. But lists like these are bittersweet. On the one hand, they can help protect the sturgeon from further population decline." It is true that these 18 species were put on the critically endangered list in 2010, but this act by the International Union for Conservation of Nature is more of a recommendation to stop the fishing and international trade of these species and to start prioritizing stock-rebuilding plans than an international law. The real protection of these species that would affect the supply of their caviar would come from the government agencies of individual countries.

"On the other hand, the rarer that caviar becomes, the more we can't get enough of it. There's actually an economic idea that explains this. It's called the rarity value thesis and it describes how "rarity increases the value of the item." Sturgeon can weigh up to several thousand pounds, and produce hundreds of pounds of roe at a time. The world record belongs to a beluga sturgeon that weighed 2,520 pounds and yielded 900 pounds of roe. Today, she'd be worth about half a million dollars."

    Wikipedia: The largest accepted record is of a female was taken in 1827 in the Volga estuary at 1,571 kg (3,463 lb) and 7.2 m (23.6 ft). Full grown beluga can have several hundred pounds of eggs at the time of harvest, but no record for roe yield exists. If it was indeed 900 lbs of beluga roe, the price for the caviar alone (if good quality) would be more than $500,000.


"It wasn't until around the 20th century when these freshwater fish and their eggs became a rare commodity. Pollution poisoned their waters and dams blocked their spawning grounds upstream. They had nowhere to reproduce and continued to be overfished for their meat and roe. On top of that, it takes 8-20 years for a female to sexually mature, depending on the species.

She can produce millions of eggs at a time, but odds are that only one will survive to adulthood. In the end, the sturgeon population couldn't keep up with demand and their coveted eggs became the jewels of the luxury food scene. Today, caviar imports and exports are closely regulated in the US., which is partly why it's so expensive."

    Wild-population survival rates from hatching to adulthood can vary greatly, but 1,000,000 to 1 chances are mostly exaggerated, even when the species was suffering most from over-fishing and environmental factors. Fish in general have mortality rates well over 90%, but there is no way to know the exact odds that an unfertilized sturgeon egg would become fertilized, hatch and survive into adulthood.

"Deborah Keane: People forget that every single egg, every one of these eggs is taken off by hand. Now, remember that we're dealing with a raw seafood endangered species. So it is basically like eating and dealing with edible elephant tusks. It is that heavily regulated."

Not exactly how caviar is removed from the fish. In the classic method, the entire roe sack is removed by hand rather than each egg individually.

 Wild caviar is not nearly as heavily regulated, or illegal, as the trading of elephant tusks. All ivory, whether from elephants or other animals with tusks, is illegal to trade in most of the world's nations. On the other hand, not all wild-caught caviar is illegal and certain species are allowed to have their eggs traded as long as the government-enforced regulatory procedures are followed.

"That's why today, the majority of caviar comes from sturgeon farms.

Deborah Keane: Little did I know that by 2011, all wild caviar would become illegal on the planet. When I started there were six farms in the world and only two producing caviar in the world and that was in 2004. Now, there are 2,000 farms."

    No, there is still wild sturgeon caviar sold around the world and it is not illegal. Most wild-caught species of sturgeon (domestic or imported) are illegal to sell for their meat or eggs according to US Fish and Wildlife protections. However, some species such as the hackleback sturgeon can be legally wild-caught and traded within US and international regulations.

    While there were far fewer fish farms selling caviar in 2004 and there has been an exponential increase since that time due to heavy regulations and trade bans on wild species, the provided numbers of farms is not accurate.

"One farm, in particular, in China called Kaluga Queen produces 35% of the world's caviar. Caviar there is harvested with the classic Russian and Iranian technique, which involves killing the fish and then extracting the eggs. Other farms are exploring a different technique, which doesn't involve killing the fish. It's called stripping."

    Kaluga Queen is currently the largest caviar producer in the world, but does not supply 35% of the world's caviar. There is estimated to be over 250 tons of caviar made each year worldwide. All of China's yearly caviar production combined might account for 35% of that, but not Kaluga Queen alone with their estimated 60 tons of annual production.

"The fish are injected with a hormone that triggers their urge to release eggs. Farmers have been doing this for many years, but not to get caviar — just to produce more fish. It wasn't until recently that people started canning this stuff and selling it as caviar."

 The process of stripping also known as milking, is mostly still utilized to get unfertilized eggs out of a female specimens on demand in order to maximize the control a fish farm has over fertilization and spawning of that species. This hormone based method has supposedly been practiced in one form or another for centuries in Russia, however, its use to make no-kill caviar has increased in recent decades. While good for conversational efforts, eating caviar from these stripped fish means you are also eating the hormone, making no-kill caviar a no-no for pregnant women.

The final count is 4 Green, 4 Yellow, and 4 Red, which means the "Why Caviar is Expensive" article averages in the Yellow, "not exactly true". There are some very good factual pieces of information provided, but also some other areas that could use more clarification or less exaggeration. In conclusion, this piece does a decent job providing insight into why caviar is expensive, although some corrections to the incorrect information is needed.

wild caught and farm raised caviar in stock


Business Insider

Guinness World Records

Science Daily


US Fish & Wildlife Service