Are you gonna eat that?

  • FROM PEN TO PLATE: A salmon is cleaned and gutted at the Englewood Packing Co. in Port McNeill, British Columbia

    Copyright 2003, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission
  • THE PINK OF HEALTH? An anti-fish farm postcard shows all the color options for Atlantic salmon. Wild salmon get their natural pink color from the krill they eat in the ocean, while Atlantic salmon get theirs from chemicals added to their food pellets

    Courtesy www.farmedanddangerous.org
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, "Bracing against the tide."

PORTLAND, Ore. — When Dan Wasil plucks a white Styrofoam package of “Fresh Atlantic Salmon” from the grocery store cooler, he gives the label no more than a second thought.

“I assume that it comes from the Atlantic,” says Wasil, a development director for a nonprofit, who has lived in Portland for over 30 years. While Wasil says he is careful to check labels on chicken and eggs to see if they’ve been produced with synthetic hormones, when he’s picking fish, “I’m relying on someone up the food chain to let me know what I’m eating. As long as it’s not $800 a pound and it looks fresh, where it originates from doesn’t really matter.”

As consumers of Atlantic salmon, Americans live up to their international reputation — we’re painfully apathetic. If we cared to ask, we’d learn that the few remaining Atlantic salmon in the U.S. are off limits to fishermen, and have been for decades. Rather, those boneless pink fillets are cut from fish raised in net pens along the Washington coast, and in Canada, Chile and Norway.

Vivian Krause, a nutritionist by training who works for the multinational meat producer Nutreco, says salmon meat contains nutrients and omega-3 fatty acids, which help lower blood pressure and may reduce risks of heart attacks, strokes and cancer. “A thousand years ago, everyone lived close to water and the majority of our protein came from fish,” she says. “With the agricultural revolution, we shifted to poultry and beef, and I think we’ve gotten a little out of balance.”

Boneless, pre-portioned and often already marinated in barbecue sauce, farmed salmon fillets are what people in the business call a “value-added product.” Critics say plenty has been added, but it’s not value.

Atlantic salmon are raised on fish feed pellets — think brown Tart ’n’ Tinys — an amalgamation of fish oils, grain, and fishmeal created from shellfish and fish, such as herring, mackerel and sardines. In the process of making pellets, producers inadvertently intensify the concentration of dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) that occur at low levels in wild salmon food. PCBs are known to cause cancer in humans, and dioxins can cause high blood pressure and strokes. Farmed salmon have more than 10 times the amount of PCBs that their wild counterparts have, according to a preliminary study conducted by geneticist Michael Easton. At these elevated levels, women and children should not eat more than one serving of farmed salmon a week, according to the World Health Organization.

The food pellets also contain antibiotics to stave off diseases, such as infectious hematopoietic necrosis, that are easily spread in the close quarters of farm pens. While industry has decreased the use of antibiotics by over 90 percent in the past decade, an internal audit by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency found that a small percentage of farmed salmon tested positive for antibiotics. The agency did not recall the meat, due to the rapid nature of processing and exportation.

Some aquaculture companies also fold canthaxanthin, a color additive, into the pellets to give their fish the color that the J. Crew catalog likes to call salmon. (Farm salmon don’t eat the krill that makes their wild cousins pink, so their meat comes out naturally gray.) But canthaxanthin may brighten the meat at the cost of consumers’ eyesight. After studies found increased vision problems among people who eat farmed fish, the European Union banned the use of the pigment. Here in the United States, the colorant is still allowed.

Starting in 2004, the Food and Drug Administration will require companies to label salmon as wild or farmed, and identify their country of origin. But if people want to see even more detailed labels that acknowledge the use of antibiotics or colorants, they need to speak up, says Charles Breen, district director for the FDA, based in Seattle, Wash.

“Labeling responds to public pressure,” he says. “At one time, labels didn’t list fat or sodium content. That changed due to a demand from the public. This is a democracy, and the public votes for what they want.”

If the public is smart, it will ask for better labeling and a better product, critics say — or stop eating farmed fish altogether.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    Introduction: Grand Staircase Escalante Partners (GSEP) is a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization with offices located in Kanab and Escalante, Utah. We are committed to the conservation...
  • CARETAKER
    2.0 acre homestead needing year-round caretaker in NE Oregon. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    For more information visit www. wyofile.com/careers/
  • THRIVING LOCAL HEALTH FOOD STORE FOR SALE
    Turn-key business opportunity. Successful well established business with room to grow. Excellent highway visibility.
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    For more information, visit www.wyofile.com/careers/
  • SONORAN INSTITUTE, CEO
    Chief Executive Officer Tucson, Arizona ABOUT SONORAN INSTITUTE Since 1990, the Sonoran Institute has brought together diverse interests to successfully forge effective and enduring conservation...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a high-impact, nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 27-year legacy using...
  • PROJECT MANAGER
    Position Summary Join our Team at the New Mexico Land Conservancy! We're seeking a Project Manager who will work to protect land and water across...
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • WILDLIFE HAVEN
    Beautiful acreage with Teton Creek flowing through it. Springs and ponds, lots of trees, moose and deer. Property has barn. Easy access. approx. 33 acres.
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...