The Moncton Times and Transcript
Opinion, Wednesday, January 14, 2004, p. D7
Farmed salmon is safe

The Chronicle-Herald
Opinion, Wednesday, January 14, 2004, p. B2
Misinformation may be hazardous to health

Brian Lee Crowley

In the supermarket on Monday to buy some farmed Atlantic salmon, I came up empty-handed. Was demand outstripping the supply of one of the healthiest things you can eat?

Alas, no.

I was told by a smug and self-righteous store manager that they were not going to carry it anymore. After all, he intoned, we have to show concern for our customers’ health.

But a store truly concerned with our health would not merely carry farmed salmon; it would praise its health merits to the skies.

Charles Santerre, a professor of food and nutrition at Purdue University said on ABC News a few days ago, “The nutritional benefits of salmon are pretty amazing. I strongly believe that all the data we have today suggests that everyone should be eating more farmed salmon.” Salmon are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, which help prevent heart attacks. They are also important for fetal brain development. Preliminary evidence even suggests Omega 3 fatty acids reduce the risk of premature births and help a child’s cognitive abilities.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency has repeatedly said farmed salmon is safe. Health Canada has been promoting fish as a healthy form of protein. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration agrees, and says salmon is an excellent source of those Omega 3 fatty acids, vitamins and proteins. Britain’s Food Standards Agency says there is good evidence that eating oily fish such as salmon reduces the risk of death from heart attacks.

And farmed salmon, which has all the same health benefits as wild salmon, is about a third of the price, and available year round, while wild salmon is available for only a fraction of the year. Farmed salmon therefore makes major health benefits accessible to far more people than wild salmon.

So what’s up with my sanctimonious supermarket manager?

Like many people, he saw media reports about an article in Science magazine measuring the trace amounts of man-made chemicals (such as PCBs) in salmon. And unfortunately, again like many people, he came away with the impression that farmed salmon is bad for you.

But that’s not at all what the evidence says.

What the report says is that there are trace amounts of PCBs in both farmed and wild salmon, and that the amounts in farmed salmon are slightly higher than in their wild cousins. That was already widely known, including by health authorities.

What the Science article left out was that the amount of PCBs in farmed salmon has been declining for years, largely thanks to continuing industry efforts to improve the quality of their product. In other words, this study documented a good news story about farmed salmon.

Farmed salmon are safe. The levels of PCBs in both kinds of salmon are well within the safe limits determined by health authorities around the world. Keep in mind, we are talking unimaginably tiny amounts.

The Science research found five parts per billion in wild salmon versus 30 parts per billion in the farmed stuff. That’s a meaningless difference, says Michael Gallo of the Cancer Institute at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Put in perspective, it’s like the difference between a pinpoint-sized and a pinhead-sized drop in an Olympic-sized pool.

Gallo helped develop the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s model for assessing cancer risk. He says both amounts are too tiny to pose any significant health risk. For practical health purposes, they are indistinguishable.

Milk, eggs, and meats routinely contain the same or higher trace amounts of PCBs, yet all are quite safe to eat. So why single out farmed salmon?

It may have something to do with who helped finance the study in the first place the Pew Charitable Trust. Pew has donated many millions of dollars over the last decade to activist environmental groups dedicated to opposing aquaculture and is rated by Washington’s Capital Research Center as being on the “radical left”. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the study’s recommendations says you should shun farmed salmon, limiting yourself to only a few servings per year.

This alarmism has garnered major media attention despite the best efforts of expert after expert to show that the major benefits of eating farmed salmon hugely outweigh any hypothetical health risk.

What has happened here? The food supply isn’t contaminated by PCBs; the science supply has been contaminated by politics.

And putting science in the service of ideology truly is injurious to our health.

Fish farming has been the target of a concerted campaign of misinformation and innuendo for years. We cannot stop scientists from saying silly things not justified by their research, but we can demand of ourselves, our media and, yes, even our supermarket managers, a tougher standard of proof before subscribing to the moral panic du jour.

Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies