Toxic Farmed Salmon
by Kim Petersen

January 11, 2004

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A report in the latest issue of the prestigious academic journal Science finds that farmed salmon has significantly higher amounts of suspected carcinogens than their wild counterparts -- in fact a ten fold increase, said collaborative study team member David Carpenter in an interview on the CBC Radio program “As it Happens.”


Scientists from six research centers investigated European, North American, and South American farmed salmon purchased in markets and compared them to the five species of wild Pacific salmon. The research points to the fish feed as a likely source of the heightened toxicity in farmed salmon. Dr. Carpenter said the fish feed was produced from “trash ocean fish” that people don’t eat. These “trash fish” had high concentrations of industrial pollutants.


Team leader professor Ronald Hites cautioned, “We think it's important for people who eat salmon to know that farmed salmon have higher levels of toxins than wild salmon from the open ocean.”


Included among the 14 toxins surveyed were suspected human carcinogens such as PCBs and dioxins.


Eating too much farmed salmon is considered to pose a risk for contracting cancer. Salmon is known to be a rich source for health-enhancing omega-3 fatty acids; yet, Carpenter warned that the unhealthful effects counteract the healthful effects of eating salmon. Consuming wild salmon was deemed safe for up to eight meals a month while eating more than one meal of farm-raised salmon a month was inadvisable.


The salmon-farming industry has shown explosive growth over the years despite myriad environmental concerns.  In recent years the harmful aspects of salmon eating have also come under closer scrutiny and the Science report is a damning indictment of this aspect of the salmon-farming industry although its authors avoid any hard-line interpretation. People are not told to stop eating farmed salmon but to limit it and to be aware of the risks.


Given that the feed of farmed salmon is also laced with antibiotics, artificial dyes, and growth hormones, it only seems obligatory that labeling a salmon as being farmed would be most prudent concerning the health of consumers. Yet such a law does not yet exist in the US, UK, or Canada. In the US the International Longshore and Warehouse Union is calling for legislation to this effect.


Since most salmon sold in restaurants and supermarkets is farmed, the menus and labels should divulge this information.


A spokeswoman for the salmon-farming industry Mary Ellen Walling was exasperated by the Science findings. What is left for people to eat now? Walling contends, “In both this and previous studies, salmon tests well below health and food safety standards set by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the World Health Organization.”


The FDA considers the toxin levels too low for serious concern. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), however, has more stringent guidelines that are health-based -- unlike the FDA's guidelines -- and the toxicity levels of farmed salmon exceed EPA safe limits.


Regarding the FDA-EPA disaccord, the salmon-farming advocacy group Salmon of the Americas' representative Alex Trent said, “We assume they [the FDA] know what they are doing, and the regulations and levels they have promulgated mean that the food, including farmed salmon, is safe, wholesome, and nutritious. EPA and FDA should work their differences out.”


Walling contends the FDA levels are the standard with the EPA standards being meant for fishers who consume a lot of fish. “Using these [EPA] standards to assess general food safety levels is at odds with not just the FDA, but also with the stated positions of the American National Cancer Institute, the US National Academy of Sciences, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and host of other scientists,” says Walling.


Regardless of which guideline to abide by, in essence, Walling’s proffered rationale is in fundamental agreement with the findings in the Science article: be careful about the amount of salmon you consume.


While the industry plays corporate low-ball the consumer unwittingly assumes the risks. 


In Europe where the salmon are most polluted, Don Stanfield of the Salmon Farm Protest Group comments:


No wonder supermarkets are reluctant to advertise the fact that 99% of fresh salmon sold in the UK is farmed not wild, let alone label the alarming fact, according to Science, that Scottish farmed salmon contains significantly higher levels of PCBs, dioxins, dieldrin and toxaphene than wild salmon. 


Given the cocktail of chemicals, artificial colourings and contaminants, Scottish farmed salmon should surely carry a Government health warning rather than being sold as a safe, healthy and nutritious foodstuff.


Related Articles:

* Salmon Propaganda

* Farmageddon and the Spin-Doctors

Kim Petersen is a writer living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He can be reached at: kimpetersen@gyxi.dk.

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