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International News, February 2004

Science shockwaves

A new paper – “Global Assessment of Organic Contaminants in Farmed Salmon” – published in the world´s most prestigious scientific journal, Science, has shaken the international salmon farming industry to its contaminated core. Scientists collected over 700 samples of farmed and wild salmon from wholesalers in each of the world´s eight major farmed salmon producing regions and supermarkets in London, Edinburgh, Paris, Frankfurt, Oslo, New York, Washington DC, Seattle, Chicago, New Orleans, Denver, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver.

Much to the chagrin of salmon farmers, the study found significantly higher levels of carcinogenic contaminants in farmed salmon than in their wild counterparts. Scottish and Faroese farmed salmon were so contaminated with PCBs, dioxins, dieldrin and toxaphene that they were over 30 times more contaminated than some wild Pacific salmon. The Science paper concluded that concentrations of these cancer-causing substances in farmed salmon on sale in Europe (from Norway, the Faroe Islands and Scotland) were the worst of the worst and four times higher than even contaminated Chilean farmed salmon.

The authors, from Indiana University, Cornell University and the State University of New York, advised consumers of farmed salmon from Scotland and the Faroe Islands that “no more than one meal every four months should be consumed in order to avoid an increased risk of cancer”. According to the Science paper, Scottish farmed salmon is safe to eat therefore only three times per year whilst consumers can happily gorge on wild Pacific salmon up to eight times a month. It´s now official – farmed salmon is bad for your health and is a cancer risk.

International coverage of Science study:

The farmed salmon scandal spawned by the Science paper – dubbed “BSE with Fins” by the UK press - made waves all around the world. The press coverage was tantamount to a tsunami with blanket TV and radio coverage in the United States, Norway, Chile, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, the Far East and across Europe. Front page headlines in The New York Times, The Daily Mail, The Times and in widespread coverage in newspapers across France, Spain, Germany, Norway and even Estonia sent shockwaves throughout the salmon farming industry. The trade newspaper Intrafish reported: “The repercussions from the publication of the most recent US study on contaminants in farmed salmon continued to sweep through the UK media over the weekend. It couldn’t be described as ‘the ripple effect’ – it’s been a tidal wave”.

Dr David Carpenter, one of the co-authors of the Science paper, told CBS TV in the United States: “We are certainly not telling people not to eat fish….We’re telling them to eat less farmed salmon”. Jeffrey Foran, a University of Michigan toxicologist and another one of the authors of the Science paper, revealed: “I and my family do not eat farmed salmon. My hope is that public health agencies will look at our study and issue advice encouraging people to eat less contaminated fish.” Speaking on ITV’s Tonight with Trevor MacDonald, celebrity TV chef Antony Worrall-Thompson said: “I don’t eat farmed salmon. I don’t let my family eat farmed salmon and I don’t serve my restaurant customers farmed salmon”.

The blast of bad publicity has caught salmon farmers in Canada cold as well. “Fish farmers locked in PR war - furor over PCB content shows marketing efforts still fall short, says expert” ran the headline in the magazine Business in Vancouver (26th January) . “This is not just bad PR,” said Lindsay Meredith, a marketing professor and associate dean at Simon Fraser University. “It's a devastating hit. People will leave this product in droves if they don´t put this one away”. “I think this is what your business calls a story having legs,” said Mary Ellen Walling, executive director of the British Columbian Salmon Farmers´ Association. “The alarmist headlines are a cause for concern”. With farmed salmon ´scare stories´ multiplying faster than sea lice on salmon farms this scandal has long legs indeed – it is going to run and run. To keep up with the press coverage read The Salmon Farm Monitor´s media archive or just type “Farmed salmon contaminated with cancer causing chemicals” into a search engine.

Lawsuit over PCBs in farmed salmon

Supermarkets, processors and Norwegian, Canadian, Scottish and Dutch salmon farming companies face legal action in the United States for failing to warn consumers that farmed salmon contain dangerous levels of PCBs - chemicals known to cause cancer, reproductive harm and nervous system damage. The Center for Environmental Health and the Environmental Working Group filed notice last month of their intent to sue 50 companies under California anti-toxics law. The fishy lawsuit fingers most of the world´s largest salmon farming companies including Marine Harvest, Nutreco, PanFish, Stolt, Cermaq, Fjord Seafood, Omega Salmon, Mainstream, Greig, Atlantic Salmon of Maine, Creative Salmon, Heritage, Cypress Island as well as supermarkets such as Safeway and Costco.

“We believe it's the responsibility of these companies to ensure that the fish they sell is not contaminated with toxic chemicals,” said Michael Green, executive director for the Center for Environmental Health. “Our goal is to challenge them to change their practices so their fish is safe to eat. The salmon farming industry must stop needlessly exposing consumers to a cancer risk in every bite”. Under Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, companies are required to notify consumers if their products contain hazardous levels of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm. “We want the farmed salmon industry to reform its practices and switch to non-toxic feed stocks, which would not contaminate farmed salmon,” said Bill Walker, vice president of the Environmental Working Group. “If they don't want to change their practices, we think consumers should be informed through warning labels."

In another lawsuit, the Center for Food Safety along with the Center for Technology Assessment are suing the U.S. Government over the sale of GM ´GloFish´. Joseph Mendelson, legal director for the Center for Food Safety, said the decision to allow GM fluorescent fish to be sold as pets set “a dangerous precedent for all future gene-altered animals, whether created as food or pet fads”. The lawsuit alleges the hidden genes can threaten human and animal health if the biotech fish are released and consumed by other fish that eventually are eaten by humans. It asks a federal judge to order the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Health and Human Services to halt sales of the trademarked GloFish until the government regulates the genetically modified animal.

Supermarket sales slump by 70%

Faced with expensive legal action and front-page headlines such as “Only Eat Salmon Three Times a Year” (The Daily Mail) and “Warning – Eating Salmon Can Seriously Damage Your Health” (The Times), the salmon farming industry is facing financial meltdown. Supermarket sales of farmed salmon have fallen by over 70% in some European countries. The Times (12th January) reported that UK consumers are treating Scottish farmed salmon like a leper: “Yesterday supermarket shelves remained stacked high with salmon steaks and smoked salmon strips as wary shoppers plumped for fresh tuna, mackerel, haddock or trout instead. Many stores slashed prices in a desperate bid to shift salmon stocks off their shelves. In Marks & Spencer at Victoria Station in London, even smoked salmon pâté and salmon mousse sat untouched on the shelves”.

Debbie Reynolds, 36, from Bristol, said: “With two young children I won’t risk buying salmon after this and there’s absolutely no chance I’ll be buying the farmed variety. It’s just too big a risk to take. I always thought the way they cram the salmon together in those fish farms was unhealthy”. Tom Jeffries, a Richmond bookseller, said: “I won’t touch farmed salmon now. I’m going to buy wild salmon, even if it is going to cost me a bit more.” At the Tesco Superstore in Dundee, Natalie Moore said: “I normally buy salmon fillets once a week but this has made me think twice. I am not going to buy salmon until I find out more”.

It is not just Scottish salmon farmers who are suffering. The Norwegian Seafood Export Council (NSEC) reported reduced sales all over the world. Sales of Norwegian farmed salmon have fallen in France, Poland, Japan, Taiwan, Russia and by over 70% in Spain. Norway’s fisheries emissary to Spain, Arne Sørvig, admitted to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that a crisis was brewing. Farmed salmon sales declined drastically, and purchasers for Spanish chains predicted they would only be buying in at about a quarter of customary levels. “The situation is dramatic. Sales, especially to our big clients like the major supermarkets, are around 20-40% of what is normal,” Sørvig told NRK, and predicted that it could take up to two months for the scare to blow over here.

Salmon farmers in the Southern hemisphere now ruthlessly see a market advantage and are distancing themselves from their more polluted and contaminated Northern hemisphere competitors. FIS reported (14th January) that “Salmon producers in Tasmania are eager to exploit the recent scandal over farmed salmon to promote their products world wide”. Mark Ryan, from Tasmania´s largest salmon producer Tassal, told ABC News that the company was counting on all the negative publicity to boost sales of their product. The New Zealand King Salmon company also issued a press release (10th January) suggesting that “media reports of a scientific comparative study on contaminant levels in farmed salmon compared with wild salmon should not alarm or be of concern to consumers of New Zealand King Salmon products”. It stated that: “The study, published yesterday in the American Journal Science, found higher levels of PCBs and dioxins in farmed salmon particularly in Europe compared to North and South American famed salmon”. The message is a marketing man´s nightmare - eat farmed salmon from the Southern hemisphere because it´s a bit less contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals than salmon farmed in Scotland, Norway and the Faroe Islands!

Washing PCBs with veggies

Salmon farmers are turning the King of Fish, a top level carnivorous predator, into a vegetarian. Like force-feeding a lion on lentils, farmed salmon will be fed more soya, maize, wheat and even seaweed in a desperate attempt to reduce its dependence on contaminated fish oil and fish meal. The Herald (24th January) reported that: “Factions within the Scottish salmon farming industry yesterday indicated, for the first time, that it had to examine its feed procedures to answer the critics. Pan Fish Scotland, based in Argyll and one of the largest suppliers of farmed salmon in Scotland, said it was considering switching from using fish oil to vegetable oil”. Alex Adrian, Pan Fish´s technical manager, said: “It may be that the reason why we see Scotland having higher levels of PCBs in its salmon is because we are the only major salmon production area that predominantly uses fish oil.”

Scientists are therefore calling on the industry to “wash out” PCB and dioxin contaminants with an increased vegetable component. Dr Gordon Bell, of the Institute of Aquaculture at the University of Stirling, said: “Our studies show the benefits of reducing fish oil intake and subsequent reductions in dioxins/PCBs. We are also involved in projects with the major feeds companies involving replacement of the fishmeal component and it is likely this can be reduced by ca. 50% for most species”. Dr Bell found that levels of dioxins and PCBs are lower in salmon fed during the growth period on diets containing vegetable oils. According to Paul Johnston, principle scientist at the Greenpeace research laboratory at Exeter University: “It is a clear case of garbage in, garbage out. If they feed salmon garbage, they will be contaminated.”

Trying to turn a carnivore into a herbivore, however, is ultimately doomed to failure. On taste terms alone will the public really swallow “salmon” that has more in common with Linda McCartney than Captain Birdseye? Already Japanese fish buyers, who buy vast quantities for sushi, have sent back shipments of farmed salmon as it tastes “too earthy” and not fishy enough for their discerning palates. There is simply no substitute for wild salmon.

Monsanto and GM fish feed

Faced with dioxin and PCB contaminated fish oil on the one hand and GM contaminated vegetables on the other, salmon farmers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Both are unpalatable to consumers and leave a bad taste in the mouth. Yet the spectre of genetically engineered vegetable protein being used to feed farmed salmon is now rearing its ugly head. But by substituting contaminated fish feed with GM vegetables you are effectively substituting one contaminant with another. Salmon farmers are so desperate however that they are seriously contemplating a Frankenfish future for fish feed.

“Genetically modified vegetable products are being considered as a substitute for fish feed, to solve the problem of toxic contamination in farmed salmon,” reported The Scotsman (17th January). “Following the flawed report by US scientists in the journal Science last week, which warned consumers to eat no more than three portions of Scottish salmon a year to avoid health risks, The Scotsman has learned that the international aquaculture industry will discuss alternative feed resources - with special focus on GM ingredients. A new European Commission-funded project called FORM (Fishmeal and Oil Replacement) has been established, and Nutreco, the owners of Marine Harvest Scotland, and EWOS, owners of Aquascot which has a small Scottish base in Bathgate, are involved in the discussions”.

Managing Director Kjell Bjordal of the Norwegian-owned EWOS Group sees the industry standing like King Canute trying to turn back the tide of GM fish feeds: “For each month that goes by it’s becoming more difficult and dearer to hold the fort. Genetically modified raw materials from the agricultural segment are increasing at an alarming rate. It will be increasingly difficult to obtain raw materials on the global market that are guaranteed free of any trace of GMO. It’s therefore just a question of time before the salmon must adapt,” he told Intrafish in August last year.

The EWOS Group (formerly known as Cermaq and owners of Aquascot and Mainstream) are supported by paid consultant to the salmon farming industry Professor Charles Santerre of Purdue University. In a statement issued immediately after the Science study was published he proclaimed: “In the near future, we will replace some or all of the fish oil and fish meal in the farmed salmon’s diet with transgenic crops that have enhanced levels of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids”. The eminent professor has also been employed by Monsanto, founding members of the Global Aquaculture Alliance, to push GM foods. Welcome to the brave new world of twenty first century fish.

Organic contaminants in organic salmon

The myth that “organic” farmed salmon is safe, healthier and more nutritious than conventionally farmed salmon has been shattered. The Soil Association, one of the world´s leading certifiers of organic food, has admitted that not only do they not test for contaminants such as PCBs, dioxins, dieldrin and toxaphene in “organic” farmed salmon but also that levels are “likely to be similar” to conventionally farmed Scottish salmon. The Soil Association further concedes that their organic fish feed, sourced from more polluted European waters, may be “more contaminated than some feed used in conventional diets”. These damning admissions, exclusively revealed by The Salmon Farm Monitor, raise serious question marks over the safety of “organic” farmed salmon and the corporate responsibility of the Soil Association.

Despite knowing full well that their product is likely to be safe to eat only three times per year, the Soil Association issued a press release immediately after the Science paper advocating that consumers eat more organically farmed Scottish salmon. The press release (9th January) - “Consumers urged to buy organic salmon” - stated that: “Following research showing that concentrations of contaminants (such as PCBs and dioxins) are higher in farmed salmon than wild salmon, the Soil Association is urging people to consider switching to organic salmon”. By not testing a single sample of “organic” farmed salmon for contaminants and by advocating that consumers eat more “organic” farmed salmon even when the Soil Association are fully aware that contamination levels are “likely to be similar” to conventionally farmed salmon the Soil Association are surely guilty of consumer fraud and corporate negligence.

A cynic might suggest that the only thing organic about “organic” farmed salmon is the fact that it contains cancer-causing organic contaminants. In fact, two organically farmed salmon were tested in 2001 by the UK’s Pesticides Residues Committee and one was contaminated with DDT and HCB and the other with DDT. The Soil Association has made a fatal mistake in certifying contaminated farmed salmon as “organic”. By watering down their organic standards to accommodate such a contaminated product and environmentally hazardous activity the Soil Association run the risk of jeopardizing the entire organic brand and hard won reputation of organic produce as healthy and environmentally-friendly food. “Organic” farmed salmon is a sham, a scam and a consumer con.

Lashings of listeria

“America rejects Ireland’s ‘filthy’ salmon” trumpeted Ireland on Sunday (11th January). The ugly front page headline was nicely juxtaposed with a picture of the newly crowned Miss World – Ireland´s prettiest export. “Exports of Irish salmon have been regularly refused by the United States in the past year over concerns that it is rotten and unfit for human consumption, Ireland on Sunday can reveal. Consumer fears over farmed salmon escalated this week after a major study in America revealed that levels of cancer causing chemicals are 11 times higher than in fish caught in the wild. But Ireland on Sunday can reveal that dioxin poisoning should be the least of Irish salmon consumers’ concerns. Irish salmon has now been found to contain the potentially fatal bug listeria and exports have been turned back by US health officers. The news is a massive blow to the Irish salmon industry which is worth more than 70 million Euros annually,” reported Ireland´s biggest selling Sunday newspaper.

“Irish salmon was deemed the most insanitary and filthy in the world by the US Food and Drug Administration last month after inspectors refused to import 214 batches of Irish salmon that were unfit for human consumption in the space of one year,” it went on before explaining how one in ten Irish salmon were contaminated with listeria. “A study by the Irish Food Safety Authority found the deadly food bug, listeria, in over 10 per cent of the salmon samples they examined in 2001. The US authorities have issued a number of safety alerts over the problem of listeria in Irish farmed salmon. Listeria can cause stillbirths and can lead to meningitis for people with poor immune systems”. John Mulcahy of Save the Swilly told Ireland on Sunday: “People should be informed about the preservatives, antibiotics, dyes and the pesticides used to kill sea lice found in the salmon. You don’t find those chemicals in wild salmon. I think the bottom line is that wild salmon don’t do drugs.”

The Sunday Times also reported (11th January) how “since adopting a zero tolerance approach to any contamination, American regulators at the Food and Drug Administration have rejected dozens of consignments of salmon from Scotland, citing concerns over listeria”. A follow up investigation by the Sunday Times (25th January) confirmed their worst fears. “Almost a fifth of smoked salmon samples bought from supermarkets and food suppliers last week contained traces of the bug, dealing another damaging blow to the industry. The level of contamination was high enough to mean that the fish would be banned from America, Australia and New Zealand as well as a number of European countries,” reported the UK´s largest selling Sunday.

The newspaper explained how the UK are protecting the salmon farming industry rather than consumers by allowing lower standards of food safety: “America, Australia, New Zealand, Austria and Italy have all adopted a zero tolerance approach to food contaminated with listeria. France, which accounts for a third of all Scottish smoked salmon exports, has said it may follow suit. However, it is legal to sell smoked salmon contaminated with minimal amounts of listeria in Britain”. Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London, said: “The presence of listeria in smoked salmon is very disturbing. This is yet another reminder that all is not well with the intensive fish-farming scene”.

Malachite green – carcinogenic?

Scientists in the United States are meeting this month (17-18th February) to debate whether malachite green is carcinogenic. The Salmon Farm Protest Group have submitted written evidence to the U.S. Department of Health´s consultation on the “Toxicology and Carcinogenesis” of malachite green. Malachite green was “nominated for toxicity and carcinogenicity studies due the potential for consumer exposure through the consumption of treated fish”.

Consumer exposure to farmed salmon contaminated with this suspected carcinogen is particularly prevalent in Europe. Exclusive information obtained by the SFPG from the European Commission´s Health and Consumer Protection Directorate (DG SANCO) reveals that one in seven (14%) farmed fish tested across Europe during 2002 (the latest figures that are available) were contaminated with malachite green. Hot spots of malachite green contamination were reported in Ireland (65%), Austria (24%) and Sweden (20%). Farmed salmon on sale in European supermarkets is mostly from Norway, the Faroe Islands, Scotland and Ireland although imports of Chilean farmed salmon have increased.

Malachite green contamination of Chilean farmed salmon is a growing problem. In 2002 Nutreco, for example, were fined for the illegal use of malachite green. And during 2003, the European Commission issued at least ten ‘Rapid Food Alerts’ for Chilean farmed salmon contaminated with malachite green. The Second Criminal Court of Puerto Montt, is still investigating a complaint for unlawful propagation of products harmful to health. The legal action was taken by the Chilean environmental groups Acción Ecológica and Ecoceanos who are demanding that contaminated shipments of farmed salmon be destroyed.

In Scotland the situation is so serious that, according to The Independent on Sunday (11th January), “sales of Scottish salmon could be banned across Europe because of contamination by an illegal and toxic chemical”. It reports that “the European Commission is to introduce even tougher health limits and is threatening legal action against the UK”. New ´Minimum Required Performance Limits´ (MRPLs), agreed at a meeting of the World Trade Organisation, were adopted in November 2003 and come into force in December 2004. If MRPLs were introduced now a significant slice of the salmon farming industry would be destroyed, quite literally, since their product would be classified as contaminated. As the IoS reported: “Under even stricter safety regulations being prepared by the European health commissioner David Byrne, an even larger number of fish farms will face automatic bans across the EU from the end of this year. Dr Byrne is to introduce a far tighter maximum limit for malachite green in December of two micro-grammes per kilogram - a level which Scottish and English fish farms have repeatedly breached”.

The last laugh

Salmon farmers do not know whether to laugh or cry as cartoonists had a field day at their expense. Here´s a selection of cartoons from the UK press published in the wake of the damning Science study:

Two cats staring at their bowl of dinner - one moaning to the other: “Not fresh salmon again” (The Times)

Chef with giant protective gloves slicing a side of farmed salmon inside an air-locked safety container (Private Eye)

Two students in their room at university: one with a large farmed Scottish salmon under his arm to the other smoking a cannabis joint – “Actually, these days I´m getting high on Scottish salmon” (The Times)

Two men sitting at the dinner table just about to eat – one with a small farmed salmon steak marked “British Portion” and the other with four whole farmed salmon piled high on his plate marked “American Portion”. Caption reads: “Salmon food scare…..one possible cause of confusion” (West Highland Free Press)

Loch Ness Monster seeing a salmon approaching: “Help! It’s a salmon!” (The Sunday Times)

Doctor announcing the results of dope tests (a British tennis player had just failed one) to a farmed salmon: “The good news is you’re safe to eat, the bad news is your tennis career is over” (The Daily Telegraph)

One older fish offering advice to a young tiddler swimming in the sea: “It’s quite simple, the more polluted you are, the longer you’re likely to live” (The Daily Mail)

Two cats sitting in a restaurant reading a menu and saying to the waiter: “Cancel the salmon. We’ll just have the mice” (The Times)

(Photocopies can be obtained from Don Staniford: (don.staniford@virgin.net)