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A fishy tale

The suspicions that lurk beneath the UK's salmon panic.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Now we can add salmon to the UK’s ever-expanding list of Foods That May Be Killing Us. Having already been through eggs, beef, soft cheese, non-organic fruit and veg, ‘junk’ food and chicken (considered generally dodgy without a specific scare), it was only a matter of time before the cheap and plentiful farmed salmon ended up in the dock.

Of course, as many have hastened to reassure us, the scare is groundless and the panic pointless. But the shape of the reaction tells us a lot about our nutritionally neurotic society. There does not need to be any real threat to human health – if the food is farmed, that’s grounds enough for somebody to try to start a panic.

The story broke last Thursday, 8 January, with the publication in the journal Science of a study by two scientists from Indiana University, USA. They examined the levels of 14 toxins in salmon, all rated as likely to cause cancer in humans by US authorities, including dioxins and PCBs, and found that farm-raised Atlantic salmon had significantly higher levels of 13 toxins compared with wild Pacific salmon (1).

Since farmed salmon are often fed meal produced by grinding up other types of fish, these toxins are apparently transferred from these fish directly into the salmon, meaning that farmed salmon over time accumulates higher levels than would be found in wild salmon. Overall, claimed the researchers, levels of toxins were highest in farmed salmon from Scotland and the Faroe Islands (2). Cue panic about Scottish farmed salmon, which is the main source of the cheap salmon people throughout the UK find on supermarket shelves.

Using ‘fish consumption advisory methods’ from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Indiana scientists recommended that people restrict their consumption of Scottish salmon to a monthly limit of one quarter of a serving, or two ounces. ‘Some scientists were so alarmed by the findings that they believe that young girls and women of child bearing age would be advised not to eat Scottish salmon at all for fear of causing birth defects and brain damage in their unborn children’, reported the Guardian, reassuringly (3).

The Daily Mail ran a photo of a salmon under the heading ‘What’s in your dinner?’, listing PCBs, dioxins, pesticides, chemicals, radioactive waste and malachite green (4). Environmental groups, of course, had a field day. ‘I would not feed farmed salmon to my cat’, said Don Staniford, a spokesman for the Salmon Farm Protest Group (whoever that might be) (5). Members of the public were wheeled out to proclaim that they would no longer feed salmon to their kids, and news reports issued grim warnings about falling salmon sales and supermarkets slashing prices in desperation.

Almost as swiftly, industry and the UK health authorities moved to counter the panic. ‘The levels of dioxins and PCBs found in this study are in line with those that have previously been found by the FSA and are within up to date safety levels set by the World Health Organisation and the European Commission’, stated the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on 9 January. ‘This study does not raise any new food safety concerns. This applies to all the salmon: farmed as well as wild, Scottish as well as imported.’ (6) The FSA stuck to its standard advice that people should eat two portions of fish per week.

Scottish Quality Salmon branded the Indiana research ‘deliberately misleading’. ‘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. ‘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.’ (7) By today, 13 January, the news headlines were full of ‘good news’ tales about supermarket salmon sales holding up, heralding a rare victory for consumer common sense.

The fact is that there is no danger posed by the chemicals in farmed salmon. As Nigel Hawkes, health editor of The Times (London), points out, ‘the evidence that these minute quantities of chemicals are capable of doing harm is non-existent’. Rather, explains Hawkes, ‘…whether the results worry you depends entirely on whether you view the world as an environmentalist or a pharmacologist’ (8). In other words, whether you are suspicious of all dioxins regardless of the evidence and dosage, or whether you trust science to establish real levels of risk. Or to put it even more bluntly, whether you are predisposed to blame modern life for making you ill, or whether you are not.

The contradictory character of most modern food scares indicates that they tend to have very little to do with real adverse effects upon human health. The salmon scare is a case in point. On one side, panic-mongers extrapolate figures to give warnings about potential cancers; on the other, health authorities warn of the adverse health consequences of not eating fish. So far as consumers are concerned, it’s a case of doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t.

The basis of this food scare is not the safety or otherwise of salmon, but a deep distrust of modern methods of food production. By targeting farmed salmon, the scare was guaranteed to fit into a well-worn narrative of the kind of food we should distrust because It’s Not Natural. Like battery chickens and eggs and mass-produced fruit and veg, the yuk factor of any food scare is invariably provided by focusing on how that food is made; and if it is made cheaply, intensively and in large quantities, it is presumed that therefore it must be bad. So while supermarkets are suspected of fishy business and fast-food joints are given a warning symbol, the virtues of free-range meat and organic veg are extolled to the heavens (if not bought in major quantities). And if something is seen to go wrong with the food – even if that ‘wrong’ is merely a panic – it is presumed that this must be because of the way it is produced.

Friends of the Earth, predictably, used the salmon study as further evidence of the way that modern practices pollute our environment. ‘This study shows yet again how the use of persistent chemicals contaminates our environment and food sources, which can be magnified by intensive farming practices’, said chemicals campaigner Mary Taylor (9). But environmentalists were not alone in making the leap from scary story to anti-farming fable.

‘With two young children I won’t risk buying salmon after this and there’s absolutely no chance I’ll be buying the farmed variety’, Debbie Reynolds, 36, told The Times (London). ‘I always thought the way they cram the salmon together in those fish farms was unhealthy.’ ‘This will make me buy organic salmon from a proper fishmonger’s rather then the stuff on supermarket shelves’, said teacher Barbara Saunders, 29. One up then for rare, expensive, specialist-sold fish; another poke in the eye for the supermarkets.

The negativity towards modern methods of food production – namely, intensively, cheaply farmed produce – is disturbing. Not because of the supermarkets’ profit margins – even if you cared about these, as the reportedly stable salmon sales and generally mediocre sales of organic produce indicate, many grocery shoppers tend to vote with their pocket despite the prevailing mood. What is disturbing is how this indicates a society reluctant to reap the benefits of even the most basic of its achievements.

The availability of affordable meat, vegetables and now fresh salmon, which, 20 years ago, most Britons would have thought was grown in a tin, has been one of the most tangible improvements of the past half century in the UK, and the resultant health benefits from better nutrition should speak for themselves.

Yet instead of appreciating this improvement in the quality, availability and affordability of fresh food, and the opportunities this provides both to enjoy food more and focus on it less, as a society we have become obsessed with the damage it could possibly be doing to us. Not tangible, health-threatening damage, mind – the facts tend to indicate that it’s doing us good. No, it is the ethereal, even spiritual damage that bothers us – that by ingesting those dioxins and these additives, we are somehow sinning against the natural order of things, and will become fat and unhappy as a result.

As if to turn us off the cornucopia of good, healthy fare that faces us in the shops, we have wars against obesity, endless health warnings against food products, and an obsession with things labelled ‘organic’. And we have a serious discussion going on about how Britons ate better during the Second World War ration-time, when you got an egg a week if you were lucky and there was not a banana in sight, let alone a salmon. Maybe the environmentalists would prefer it if the government brought back whale-meat.

(1) Scare over farmed salmon safety, BBC News, 8 January 2004

(2) Scare over farmed salmon safety, BBC News, 8 January 2004

(3) Cancer warning over Scottish farmed salmon, Paul Brown and Kirsty Scott, Guardian, 9 January 2004

(4) ‘Salmon health alert’, Daily Mail, 9 January 2004

(5) ‘So who can we trust?’, Sunday Times, 11 January 2004

(6) Response to salmon study in Science magazine, Food Standards Agency, 9 January 2004

(7) Science study is seriously misleading on safety of Scottish salmon, Scottish Quality Salmon, 8 January 2004

(8) ‘Is fish really dangerous, or safe as mother’s milk?’, The Times, 12 January 2004

(9) Cancer warning over Scottish farmed salmon, Paul Brown and Kirsty Scott, Guardian, 9 January 2004

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Topics Politics

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