Seven of ten farmed salmon purchased at grocery stores in Washington DC, San Francisco, and Portland, Oregon were contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) at levels that raise health concerns, according to independent laboratory tests commissioned by Environmental Working Group.
PCBs are persistent, cancer-causing chemicals that were banned in the United States in 1976 and are among the “dirty dozen” toxic chemicals slated for global phase-out under the United Nations Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, signed by President Bush on May 23, 2001. Because of their persistence, PCBs continue to contaminate the environment and the food supply.
Why is the EPA not warning the public about the dangers of consuming farm-raised salmon? Because it cannot legitimately warn the public about an animal product that is bought — rather than caught. If salmon caught in the wild had these level of PCBs, as Crustaceans do, then the EPA could launch a campaign informing the public of the increased risk in eating the cancer-causing agents found in the wild salmon.
This is because the EPA sets health guidance levels for PCBs in wild-caught salmon, and its standards, which were updated in 1999 to reflect the most recent peer-reviewed science, are 500 times more protective than the PCB limits applied by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to commercially sold fish. The FDA has not updated its PCB health limit for commercial seafood since it was originally issued in 1984. In the intervening two decades new scientific research has shown that the PCBs that build up in fish and people are more potent cancer-causing agents than originally believed, and that they present other health risks as well, in particular neurodevelopmental risks to unborn children from maternal consumption of PCB-contaminated fish.
When the FDA’s standard was developed, salmon was something of a rarity in the U.S. diet. Today it is standard fare at home and in restaurants, particularly among consumers who are health-conscious, well-educated, and relatively affluent. Last year salmon overtook “fish sticks” as the third most popular seafood in the American diet, trailing only tuna and shrimp. (Tuna stands at the list of highest mercury filled fishes; and shrimp have high levels of almost everything humans should not eat) The increased consumption was made possible by the explosive growth in salmon farming, an industrial system that produces the fish in vast quantities at a price far lower than wild salmon.
The farmed salmon industry claims that both farmed and wild salmon can be eaten safely more than once a week. This claim relies on FDA’s outdated contamination limit. In EWG’s testing program, nine of 10 farmed salmon tested from five countries of origin failed EPA’s health-based limits for weekly consumption (6000 parts per trillion), exceeding the standard by an average of 4.5 times. A pilot study published by Canadian scientists last year showed that farmed Canadian salmon contain ten times the PCBs of wild Alaskan and Canadian salmon.
These first-ever tests of farmed salmon from U.S. grocery stores show that farmed salmon are likely the most PCB-contaminated protein source in the U.S. food supply. On average farmed salmon have 16 times the dioxin-like PCBs found in wild salmon, 4 times the levels in beef, and 3.4 times the dioxin-like PCBs found in other seafood — not including Crustaceans. The levels found in these tests track previous studies of farmed salmon contamination by scientists from Canada, Ireland, and the U.K. In total, these studies support the conclusion that American consumers nationwide are exposed to elevated PCB levels by eating farmed salmon.
Recommendation: When you see salmon on the menu, ask your waiter if it is farm-raised or wild. Do the same in your grocery store, by asking at the meat counter whether you’re getting farm-raised or wild.