When Dan Wasil plucks a white package of "Fresh Atlantic Salmon" from the grocery store cooler, he hardly glances at its label.
"I assume that it comes from the
Atlantic," says Wasil, a fundraiser who has lived in Portland for
over 30 years. While he says he’s careful to check labels to
see if chicken has been produced without hormones, "as long as fish
isn’t $800 a pound and it looks fresh, where it originates
from doesn’t really matter."
Atlantic salmon don’t live in the wild and haven’t for
decades. Rather, those boneless pink fillets were cut from fish
raised in giant net pens in the Pacific Ocean along the Washington
coast, and in Canada, Chile and Norway. Like feedlots, these pens
are big business, producing 1.2 million tons of Atlantic salmon
annually. In British Columbia alone, farmed fish have become the
province’s largest agricultural export, bringing $603 million
in to Canada.
Feedlot salmon grow fast, thanks to
fish-feed pellets that look a lot like brown Tart ‘n’
Tinys. The pellets are an amalgam of fish oils, grain and fishmeal
from herring, mackerel and sardines. In the process of making
pellet food, producers also inadvertently intensify the
concentration of dioxins and Polychlorinated biphenyls that get fed
to the fish.
PCBs and dioxins are known to cause cancer,
high blood pressure and strokes, and farmed salmon have more than
10 times the amount of PCBs than their wild counterparts. At these
elevated levels, women and children are advised not to eat more
than one serving of farmed salmon a week, according to the
UN’s World Health Organization.
not all. The food pellets contain antibiotics to stave off diseases
easily spread in the close quarters of farm pens. While the
industry has decreased the use of antibiotics by over 90 percent in
the past decade, an internal audit by the Canadian Food Inspection
Agency that a small percentage of farmed salmon tested positive for
antibiotics. The agency chose not to recall the meat because of the
rapid nature of processing and exportation.
more. Atlantic salmon don’t look like wild salmon, so some
aquaculture companies fold in a color additive called canthaxanthin
to the food pellets. They lend the gray fish a sunset color that
the J. Crew catalog likes to call "salmon."
They do this
because farm salmon don’t eat the krill that makes their wild
cousins a riotous pink. But anthaxanthin may brighten the meat at
the cost of damaging consumers’ eyesight. After studies
showed increased vision problems among people who eat farmed fish,
the European Union slashed the use of the pigment by a factor of
three. Here in the United States, there are no restraints on using
Perhaps most disturbing is that consumers
don’t know much about Atlantic salmon, and few grocery stores
bother to set us straight. That may be about to change. Eight
consumers filed a class action suit in Seattle in late April
against three of the nation’s largest grocery chains for not
making public how their Atlantic salmon was raised and what
colorants were added to it.
Now, after a spate of bad
press, two of the companies -- Kroger Co. and Albertsons Inc.,
though not Safeway Inc.-- have pledged to label the fish as
"artificially colored." While people who monitor food issues call
this a "great victory," we consumers better keep asking our
Several organizations are working to
help us make better seafood choices. The Marine Stewardship
Council, an international nonprofit with U.S. headquarters in
Seattle, Wash., has created a certification process that designates
seafood as healthy for both the environment and people.
Along the same lines, California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium
offers a free, wallet-sized guide that tells consumers which
fisheries produce salmon and other fish in a sustainable manner.
Farmed fish don’t make the list.
Those of us who
congratulated ourselves for switching from red meat to Atlantic
salmon need to get smarter, for it seems what we’ve done is
substitute one feedlot for another. It reminds me of the time
Americans were told to switch from butter to margerine, only to be
advised later that butter really was better for our health.
Fortunately, some fish is still a healthy choice for
dinner. That choice is wild and hatchery-raised salmon, and
it’s available at most grocery stores. It will certainly be
there if consumers who have informed themselves ask for it. While
wild salmon may cost more per pound, you’ll know you’re
getting the real thing.