High Levels of PCBs in Farmed Salmon,
by Jane Kay, Chronicle Environment Writer
Farmed salmon purchased from grocery stores in the Bay Area, Portland, Ore., and Washington, D.C., carried levels of PCBs five times higher than in wild salmon, according to a new report.
The findings, to be released today by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization, are based on a small sample of 10 farmed salmon produced in Chile, Maine, Iceland, Canada and Scotland.
The report comes at a time when the popularity of salmon is on the rise in the United States, ranking as the third most popular type of seafood after shrimp and tuna. About 23 million people eat either farmed or wild salmon more than once a month.
Seven of the 10 farmed fish had concentrations of PCBs high enough to trigger health warnings from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the group's headquarters in Washington.
"If farmed salmon with the average PCB level found in this study were caught in the wild, the EPA would restrict consumption to no more than one meal a month, but because farmed salmon are bought, not caught, their consumption is not restricted in any way," Houlihan said.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were once used in electrical transformers, and although they were banned in the 1970s, they persist, raising concerns that high enough levels can cause cancer and nervous system damage.
The report points up differences in regulations by the Food and Drug Administration, which has authority to set limits for toxic properties in fish sold in markets, and the EPA, which has authority to set guidelines on recreationally caught fish.
Under guidelines set in 1984, the FDA permits farmed fish to be sold with PCB levels of 2,000 parts per billion. EPA's limits, set in 1999, get stricter the more fish a person eats. Based on eating two meals a week, the guidance is 500 times stricter than the FDA's, she said.
The fish purchased in the Bay Area at Safeway and Albertsons had PCB levels around 25 parts per billion. The Canadian farmed salmon bought at Ver Brugge market in Oakland was around 33 parts per billion. The highest of the 10 fish was a Scottish farmed salmon at 68 parts per billion from Berkeley Bowl.
The group said it had pursued the tests in farmed salmon because of small studies in Canada, Ireland and England that found that the pen-grown fish had higher levels of PCBs when compared to wild salmon.
According to the report, six out of 10 salmon sold in stores and restaurants are raised in high-density fish pens in the ocean, managed and marketed by the salmon farming industry. The fishmeal made from crushed fish and oils contribute to the higher PCB levels, which are on average the highest of any U.S. protein source, it said.
Representatives of Salmon of the Americas, a trade group for Canadian, Chilean and U.S. salmon growers, immediately criticized the findings.
"The Environmental Working Group finds farmed salmon tested by them to be well within FDA guidelines," said Pat Hansen, spokeswoman for Salmon of the Americas. "However, they use their report to take issue with the FDA standards.
The report contains many misstatements of fact, inaccuracies, and is thought by independent food safety experts to be an unscientific approach to the subject."
Terry Traxell, director of the FDA's office of plant and dairy foods and beverages, told the Washington Post that beginning in 2000 his agency had "ramped up" its review of the prevalence of PCBs in salmon and other foods. The agency will consider a number of strategies once the investigation is complete, including revising its advice to consumers or revising its standards for the farm salmon industry, Traxell said.
"Based on everything we know about PCB in salmon, the FDA maintains its current advice to consumers to not alter their consumption of salmon or other fish, which is highly nutritious," Traxell said.
learn more on topics covered in the film
see the video
read the script
learn the songs