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for people who care about the West

Are you gonna eat that?

 

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.