Environmental groups sue farmers, retailers over PCBs

Two environmental groups have begun legal actions against 50 salmon farms, grocery chains and fish processors worldwide under California's anti- toxics law, claiming that the businesses are failing to warn consumers of dangerous PCBs in farmed salmon

January 23, 2004

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Center for Environmental Health (CEH) have filed legal notice under California's main toxics law, Proposition 65, of plans to sue the manufacturers, distributors and retailers of farmed salmon over potentially dangerous levels of cancer-causing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) in the fish.

As reported in today's San Francisco Chronicle, the groups are urging the salmon farming industry to "stop feeding practices that result in high concentrations of toxic PCBs in their fish".

A press release from The Environmental Working Group EWG says "The salmon farming industry can — and must — produce a heart-healthy food, without the PCB risks that farmed salmon currently pose, said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at EWG. "The federal Food and Drug Administration has shown no intention of taking action on this issue, so we are pursuing our case under California's toxics right-to-know law.

Numerous studies, including one published earlier this month in the peer-reviewed journal Science and an EWG study of supermarket fish in several U.S. cities released last summer, have found high concentrations of PCBs in farmed salmon, yet federal regulators have failed to take action.

"The salmon farming industry must stop needlessly exposing consumers to a cancer risk in every bite," said Michael Green, executive director of Oakland-based CEH. "Some responsible salmon farmers have already taken steps to reduce PCB levels in their feed stocks. Now we're challenging the entire industry to make farmed salmon safer for everyone."

The 50 defendants named in the filings include farmed salmon producers based in Canada and Europe, such as Marine Harvest, Panfish, Stolt Sea Farm, Heritage and Mainstream, as well as large U.S.-based retailers such as Safeway, Kroger, Albertson's and Costco.

PCBs in farmed salmon are high because fish farms typically raise salmon on feed high in fatty fish and fish oils. Since PCBs in the environment accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals, this diet results in fish with high concentrations of the carcinogenic chemical. But other companies, such as Black Pearl Salmon and Clare Island Sea Farm, regulate their feed and use other practices to minimize the PCB content in their products.

Proposition 65 is California's Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, which ensures the public's right-to-know about toxic chemicals in consumer products and in the environment. The law provides that a company must either reformulate its product or notify consumers if the product contains a hazardous level of any chemical. After the 60-day notice period a formal lawsuit may be filed. Public interest groups like CEH and EWG use Prop. 65 to hold corporations accountable for their environmental and health impacts.