Activists use of Science study to alarm public is misleading and wrong, says PAA

A bombshell study in the journal Science has led to an outporing of protest from fish farming organizations around the world
January 9, 2004

Activists are misleading the public and the media by telling only part of the story concerning a study released yesterday in the journal Science that compares levels of PCBs in wild and farmed salmon.  

“What the study actually shows is that PCB levels in farmed salmon fall far below the safety guidelines set by government authorities around the world, including the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA),” said Laurie Jensen, president of the grassroots-based Positive Aquaculture Awareness.

The FDA yesterday made a public statement making clear that the levels of pollutants found in salmon and reported in the Science study are too low for serious concern. The agency is urging people not to let the study frighten them into a diet change.

Other experts agree with the FDA analysis.  The Associated Press quoted Eric Rimm, a specialist on nutrition and chronic disease at the Harvard School of Public Health as saying the study "will likely over-alarm people in this country." 

Rimm also stated, "To alarm people away from fish because of some potential, at this point undocumented, risk of long-term cancer — that does worry me."

No less than the National Cancer Institute, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Council on Science and Health, the American Heart Association, the World Health Organization and the National Fisheries Institute have all declared farmed salmon as a healthy, nutritious product.

Jensen said the benefits of eating farmed salmon, which is high in beneficial Omega-3 fatty acids -- a proven ingredient in preventing heart disease – far outweigh any risks.

“One in two people die of cardiovascular disease, and that’s a far bigger concern than the undocumented risk of cancer,” said Jensen.  “Eating lots of farmed salmon will make people much healthier over the long-term,” she said.

“What’s so unfortunate is that the activists are scaring people away from one of the most nutritious foods available,” Jensen said.  “This pattern of misinformation and half-truths is well-documented in the report we released yesterday entitled ‘Farmed salmon, PCBs, Activists, and the Media,” she said.

The PAA report is available at

Scottish Quality Salmon has also issues a statement accusing the research of being deliberately misleading in the advice it gives on farmed salmon consumption.

"In advising how much salmon should be eaten the study ignores all the health benefits of regular farmed salmon consumption as reported in over 5,000 scientific studies. It also, we believe, misuses the risk assessment guidelines provided by the US Environment Protection Agency (EPA) which are meant to be applied to non-commercially caught fish and should include consideration of health benefits".

 "In fact, consumers should be reassured by this research, despite its rather obvious attempt to stir anti-fish farming headlines," commented Scottish Quality Salmon technical consultant Dr John Webster. "It actually says that 'individual contaminant concentrations in farmed and wild salmon do not exceed US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) action or tolerance levels". This is true. PCB and dioxin levels in Scottish salmon are significantly lower than the thresholds set by international watchdogs such as the EU, the Food Standards Agency or even the US FDA."

Salmon is produced by SQS members - representing some 65% of Scottish production - to the most stringent independently inspected quality assurance standards in the world.

Scottish Quality Salmon, whose members include feed suppliers, has already taken steps to maximise levels of beneficial omega-3 essential fatty acids and minimise PCB and dioxin levels yet further by a variety of techniques including:
- the sourcing of the highest quality raw materials - fish meal and fish  oils used in the feedstuffs - from areas least affected
- investing in additional processing technology to further reduce levels
- examining the potential benefits of incorporating different types of high quality plant-derived oil
- an ongoing testing regime to verify successful progress.

"The health benefits of eating oil-rich fish, like salmon, are well established with over 5,000 scientific and medical papers on the subject. The beneficial effects of omega-3 fatty acids on a wide range of conditions are well documented, most recently in children's cognitive development demonstrated this week in the BBC's Child of Our Time series. "

The FSA continues to recommend that consumers eat at least one portion of oil-rich fish a week, the only significant source of these essential nutrients in the human diet.

Salmon of the Americas says the study confirms several key points about salmon which have been known for some time:  
PCB levels in farmed salmon raised in the Americas contain, on average, 1/80 of the tolerance set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency(CFIA). It is noteworthy that the comprehensive report by the National Academy of Sciences published in June 2003 on this subject recommends that the consumption of fish not be restricted to achieve reduction in PCBs in the total diet because of the increasing evidence of health benefits compared to the unproven risks.

It is also important to note that the samples in this study were obtained about two years ago and in that time PCB levels in farmed salmon have decreased significantly because of continuing industry efforts. This is omitted from the published Hites report. The ongoing FDA "market basket" study shows, for instance, a decline of 28 percent from 1998 to 2001 (the last year for which "market basket" numbers are currently available).
There are differences in PCB levels among wild and farmed salmon, and among farmed salmon from different areas of the world, with salmon from North and South America being the lowest. We are aware that PCBs come from fishmeal and oil. Meal and oil for fish feed are formulated from the least contaminated sources possible. Additionally, the industry has reduced fishmeal and oil use by over 60 percent in the past decade with the substitution of vegetable sources.
Using EPA guidelines for recreational and subsistence fish rather than the accepted FDA tolerances indicates an increase in lifetime cancer risk with the recommended salmon consumption levels on the order of one in one hundred thousand, or one thousandth of a percent increase, as compared to a decrease in the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) on the order of 30 percent. Thus, using these levels, which are based solely on increased risk, as the authors do, is misleading and potentially dangerous to the health and welfare of Americans.
Overall, it is disappointing that the authors allow their academic speculation to mislead American consumers and interfere with consumption of a food that can help save thousands of lives, and billions of health care dollars. Specifically:
The authors of this study choose to ignore the overwhelming evidence about the health benefits of farmed salmon and the opinions of noted scientists in the fields of medicine, nutrition and food safety. Instead, they focus on the speculative risks from these low levels of PCBs for which there exists no evidence that at these low doses are toxic to humans. (Please see statements from other scientists below.)
The authors infer that the benefits of salmon can be gained from wild salmon, which their sampling shows has lower PCB concentrations than farmed salmon and is on average generally lower. This neglects the important fact that fresh wild salmon are not available for eight months of the year. It also ignores the fact that wild salmon is much more expensive; a meal for four typically costing $22 dollars vs. $7 for farmed. The difference in price puts any routine consumption of this healthy food out of the reach of most Americans.

This elitist attitude is disturbing and counterproductive to the goals of American society in general, and specifically to nutrition education.
The study completely ignores the fact that PCBs are ubiquitous in the environment, and unfortunately occur in many foods, including beef, milk and chicken. Further, it neglects to acknowledge that the PCB intake in the diet of the average American comes mainly from other foods, not salmon—farmed or wild. Or, that many of these foods have a fraction of the health benefits of salmon, so that decreasing PCBs in the diet can easily be accomplished by eating less of other less healthful foods not decreasing consumption of salmon and its attendant health benefits.
The study ignores widely published studies of contaminants in wild salmon which show levels comparable or greater than those they show in farmed salmon. While, at these elevated levels, the wild salmon are also safe by FDA guidelines, it calls into question the overall motivation for their exclusion by the authors.

Our Pledge
While the risk of these trace amounts of contaminants is yet unproven, we agree that any contaminants are unacceptable in any food. Member companies of Salmon of the Americas continue to bring considerable resources to bear on reducing the levels of PCBs in our salmon. This effort has been successful in reducing levels to date and future work, both by member companies and a SOTA coordinated effort will continue to move farmed salmon to even lower levels, and what we hope will some day result in farmed salmon free of any contaminants.

Salmon of the Americas calls on all food producers to work together to remove these contaminants from the food supply. Certainly that is the goal of our members respecting farmed salmon.

We also look forward to working with responsible non-industry parties to identify the problems and opportunities involved in reaching these goals in a way that keeps the needs of consumers in mind as we deal with these issues in an honest and open


Experts Respond to the Hites et al. Study

Statement of Phil Guzelian, M.D., Professor of Medicine. Head, Section of Medical Toxicology, University of Colorado Health Sciences Center

The Hites et al. 2003 report is largely a confirmation of previously accumulated knowledge regarding trace amounts of chlorinated chemicals detectable in fish, in this case, in salmon. The data show quite convincingly, as has been known for some time, that regardless of whether the salmon are farm bred or caught wild, the amounts of these chemicals are small indeed, being about 100 times lower than the safe amounts recommended by the US FDA's health-based risk assessments.

In view of the lack of an evidence-based determination that these chlorinated chemicals at such low doses are toxic to humans at all, the Hites et al. 2003 report provides reassurance to the public to consider, without misgivings, the reported health benefits of including salmon in the diet.


Statement of Dr. Stephen Safe, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor, Director, Center for Environmental and Genetic Medicine Institute of Bioscience & Technology, Texas A&M

The study looks at farmed and not farmed (wild). The results of this study are not that much different from what was done before. However, it is interesting to note that farmed salmon levels are much lower now than what was published previously. So number one: this is good news. Levels are going down. Secondly, in terms of all the calculations, all levels are well below FDA established levels. So I wonder what the problem is? Particularly when weighted against the high nutritional value of farmed salmon?

Statement of Charles Santerre, Ph.D.,  Associate Professor, Foods and Nutrition, Purdue University
I think it's unconscionable to direct pregnant women away from farmed salmon. Omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon are important for brain development, and there's preliminary evidence that they reduce the risk of preterm births and slightly increase a child's cognitive abilities.

The PCB levels in farmed salmon are all below the level determined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be safe for sale in supermarkets. That cutoff is 40 times higher than what EPA has determined is safe in recreationally caught fish, in part because FDA considers safety and nutrition whereas EPA looks solely at risks.