Experts Criticize Pew Trusts for False Salmon Scare

Published April 1, 2005

European scientists and media, who subjected the Pew Charitable Trusts to withering criticism a year ago after Pew released a study claiming farm-raised salmon presents greater health risks than wild salmon, launched a new round of criticism of Pew in the fall, after further scrutiny uncovered more problems with the study.

Euro Press Fights Back

“Pew’s tactics have become bitterly controversial in North America,” asserted the January 23, 2004 West Highland (Scotland) Free Press. “They have adopted a philosophy of paying for research and journalism out of their bottomless resources in order to influence public opinion towards the causes to which they are committed.”

The “national media mugging of the salmon farming industry stemmed not from any impartial, unsullied source, but from an organization with an agenda,” summarized the Free Press in a separate editorial. “Their record stands rather on the wildest extremes of the environmentalist movement. Pew’s lavish amounts of money are used not for impartial scientific inquiry but to further the aims of that movement.”

“The salmon scare which threatened last weekend to bring British salmon farming to its knees,” noted the January 15, 2004 London Times, “is a sorry saga of flawed science, selective research and hidden commercial bias. That it was allowed into the pages of the apparently respectable journal Science is inexplicable. Its worldwide promotion by an organization with a vested interest in undermining farmed Atlantic salmon in favor of the wild Alaskan variety is a scandal.”

“That well-planned and funded assault on the global seafood trade has European nations eyeing the credibility of the United States research community,” added the International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources. “Imperious, incompetent, arrogant, and erroneous are reflective of the invectives being hurled at the so-called ‘U.S. study.'”

Criticism Continues

The Free Press remains incensed about Pew’s questionable motives and tactics, as noted in a September 10, 2004 editorial: “Far from being an independent, uncommitted organization, Pew worked as publicists and financers for militant ‘green’ groupings across the world. … The level of incompetence involved in the research process was awesome–they did not know, it transpires, where the salmon they were testing came from. They did not even know whether it was wild or farmed.

“Dr. David Carpenter himself has admitted that Pew Charitable Trust were on a mission. ‘There may be some legitimacy,’ he said, ‘in saying the reason they chose to fund this study was that they had another agenda well beyond the health effects.’

“We could not have put it better ourselves,” the editorial concluded.

At the fifth Biennial Conference on Fish Processing, held September 16 in Grimsby, England, Scottish salmon expert Dr. John Webster delivered a presentation titled “Salmon Quality and Safety: Real and Perceived.” Said Webster, “There are a series of flaws in the work funded by the Pew Charitable Trust. The research methodology is regarded as scientifically flawed by the World Health Organisation and food safety agencies worldwide. And the research completely ignored the considerable body of data on environmental contaminants in foods, including salmon, in the public domain already.”

U.S. Media Hyped the Study

The salmon scare began when the January 9, 2004 issue of Science magazine published a Pew-funded paper by David Carpenter of the University of Albany Institute for Health and the Environment. The beneficiary of a $2.5 million Pew grant, Carpenter claimed to have compared the PCB levels of wild and farmed salmon from various regions of the world.

According to Carpenter, farmed salmon contained dangerously more cancer-causing PCBs than wild salmon, and humans could safely eat no more than one serving per month of farmed salmon. The study was particularly critical of salmon raised in Scotland and other northern European regions.

A January 9 article in the Los Angeles Times was typical of the U.S. media’s coverage of the study. Noted the Times, “Salmon raised in ocean feedlots, the main source of supply for American consumers, contains such high levels of PCBs, dioxins, and other toxic chemicals that people should not eat it more than once a month, according to an extensive study reported today in the journal Science.”

The Times then noted Carpenter’s “chief concern … that pregnant women can pass on these contaminants to their fetuses, impairing mental development and immune-system function.”

“Our recommendations are that women and girls should reduce their consumption of farmed salmon and other contaminated fish until they are through reproductive age,” the Times reported Carpenter as saying.

Similarly, the Washington Post quoted Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the activist Environmental Working Group, as stating the study “leaves little room for the farmed fish industry to argue away the problems of polluted farmed seafood.”

Fears Debunked

According to the Center for Consumer Freedom, “Canada’s … chief health authorities report: ‘[C]onsuming farmed salmon does not pose a health risk to consumers.’ Likewise, the British Food Standards Agency (the UK’s equivalent to our FDA) notes that the results of the Pew-funded study show the levels of PCBs and dioxins in salmon are ‘within up-to-date safety levels set by the World Health Organization and the European Commission.’ … Pew failed to point out that the majority of the PCBs and dioxin are found in the fish’s skin and fatty outer layer, which most people don’t eat.”

Dr. Charles Santerre, associate professor of foods and nutrition at Purdue University, observed that the “dangerous” PCB levels (0.06 parts per million) asserted in the study were merely 3 percent of the tolerance level prescribed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (2 ppm).

Santerre considered the Pew-funded study flawed because it did not take into account the nutritional benefits of eating salmon, which is rich in proteins, vitamins, and omega-3 fatty acids, particularly important for pregnant women. On January 9, the Los Angeles Times quoted Santerre as saying, “I would calculate 6,000 people getting cancer over their lifetime [by consuming farm-raised salmon], that’s an approximation, versus potentially saving the lives of 100,000 individuals every year.”

Santerre told ABC News that day, “I strongly believe that all the data we have today suggests that everyone should be eating more farmed salmon.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is managing editor of Environment & Climate News.