Monitor archives:
Copyrighted material

Study Finds High PCB in Farmed Salmon

by Katrin Dauenhauer

Fish Farms Not Sustainable, Experts Warn
(IPS) WASHINGTON -- A study released this week that found elevated levels of PCBs in fish-farmed salmon has been condemned by farmers but has led some U.S. retailers to promise they will replace bred salmon with wild fish.

The study by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) concluded that, on average, farmed salmon have 16 times the dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) found in wild salmon, four times the levels found in beef, and 3.4 times the levels found in other seafood.

That makes farmed salmon likely the most PCB-contaminated protein source available to U.S. consumers, according to the 17-page report by the Washington-based, non-profit environmental research and advocacy group.

Seven of the 10 samples of farmed Atlantic salmon purchased at grocery stores in three U.S. cities were contaminated with PCBs at levels that raise health concerns, according to independent laboratory tests commissioned by EWG.

PCBs are suspected of causing cancer in people, impairing the immune system and harming brain development of the fetus.

"Most of the time, people are not aware how persistent PCBs are. When Congress banned PCBs in 1976, no one thought that 20 years later we would still have to worry about PCBs in humans," Jane Houlihan, vice president of research for EWG told IPS on Wednesday.

"Though the concentration of PCBs in human has been decreasing in the last years, salmon poses a new potential means of transport to the human body."

If salmon with the same average PCB level found in the EWG study were caught in the wild, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) -- which is responsible for setting guidelines levels for PCBs in wild-caught salmon -- would advise people to restrict consumption to no more than one meal of the fish a month, added Houlihan.

But commercially sold fish is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), whose PCB health limit has not been updated since it was issued in 1984 and is 500 times less protective than PCB limits applied by the FDA, she said.

"The regulations by the FDA need to be revisited and updated. We know so much more than we knew 20 years ago and we should really use this information to our benefits," said Houlihan.

The FDA responded by pointing to its dioxin-monitoring program, set up in 2000. By monitoring dioxins like PCBs in the food supply and tracing their origins, the program will reduce or remove the toxins from the food supply, the agency says.

"FDA does currently measure PCB exposure through the total diet study survey, also referred to as the market basket survey. In this survey, which represents 200 core foods in the United States, FDA determines the level of contaminants," Sebastian Cianci, policy analyst at FDA told IPS on Wednesday.

"The findings of our study show a decrease in dietary PCB exposure compared to the 1970s, when PCBs were routinely found in those studies. In fact, PCB exposure has decreased by over 90 percent."

"FDA continues to monitor dioxins but there are no immediate plans to change the regulations, though FDA appreciates the information from EWG and will utilize the results." Cianci added.

"FDA does recognize the potential health benefits from eating salmon and other fish and recommends that salmon consumption should not be altered."

The salmon farming industry is more critical of the report's findings. Salmon of the Americas, an organization of 80 salmon farmers in the United States, Canada and Chile, says the study contains many "misstatements of fact" and "inaccuracies", and calls it an "unscientific approach to the subject".

"The salmon farming industry has the consumer as its number one concern and we feel that quoting EPA guidelines, rather than the established FDA regulations, is potentially misleading and harmful to consumers," it said in a statement.

"Until we hear differently from the FDA, we would assume that theirs are the regulations we need to follow. We assume they know what they are doing," it added.

"This study wasn't trying to be the definitive study," responded Houlihan. "EWG is urging FDA to conduct a similar study on a much larger scale which takes into account many more fish samples than EWG was able to. Therefore, FDA should make a request to Congress to provide money."

"The current study by EWG was more to raise the issue to see how much of a concern it is," she added.

Salmon is the third most popular type of fish consumed and consumption is increasing. According to the report, one-quarter of all adults eat salmon at least occasionally.

The EWG report recommends eating wild and canned salmon instead of farmed, and to consume farmed salmon no more than once a month.

Retailers are already reacting to the report.

Wild Oats, a natural and organic supermarket chain, announced on its homepage Tuesday that beginning next week, it will sell organic farmed salmon from Ireland in all of its stores that now sell farmed salmon.

Whole Foods, a natural and organic foods supermarket, told IPS that it is also seeking a farmed salmon supplier.

"Consumer preferences have so much power to affect policy. Consumers shape market behavior with their wallets. EWG definitely wants to see more consumers buy wild salmon," said Houlihan.

Comments? Send a letter to the editor.

Albion Monitor July 31, 2003 (

All Rights Reserved.

Contact for permission to use in any format.