Scientists Expose Fishy Warnings about Farmed Salmon

Published March 1, 2004

An article in the January 9 issue of Science magazine warned readers against eating more than one serving of farm-raised salmon a month, claiming the fish present a cancer risk. Scientists quickly responded, however, with evidence showing the health benefits of eating farm-raised salmon substantially outweigh any hypothetical health risks.

The article’s authors measured the levels of 13 allegedly harmful chemicals in farm-raised salmon versus wild salmon. They found substantially higher levels of PCBs in farm-raised salmon than in wild salmon. The article reported farm-raised salmon exceeded Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards for levels of PCBs and two other chemicals.

“Our results suggest that if people do not want to be at increased risk for cancer, they should reduce their consumption [of farmed salmon] to the levels that are identified in our report,” said David Carpenter, a coauthor of the study.

Newspapers across the country nevertheless ran with the Science magazine story, uncritically trumpeting its findings and advising consumers not to eat farmed salmon.

Fishy Claims Exposed

Its publication in Science notwithstanding, the report was clearly a work of advocacy rather than science. It was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a leading funder of radical environmentalists and their organizations. “The foundations underwriting [international activist and advocacy environmental groups] are among the wealthiest in the United States,” reported the Capital Research Center in a November 2003 report, “The International Green Agenda.” “They include the Ford Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and David and Lucile Packard Foundation.”

According to Steve Milloy, author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams, David Carpenter “has crusaded against PCBs for years. … He’s a well-known health-scare hyperventilator.” Another of the report’s coauthors, Milloy pointed out, is associated with Citizens for a Better Environment, “an eco-activist group [that] is currently waging a cleanup crusade over PCBs in Wisconsin’s Fox River and Green Bay.”

Industry experts, scientists, and policy analysts were quick to expose the fishy claims of the article.

Jim Gracie, president of Stolt Sea Farm Americas, noted the Science article measured chemical levels in salmon against a subset of EPA standards that are substantially out of line with the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) guidance for safe consumption.

According to the study, farm-raised salmon contain only 1/80th of the FDA’s recommended limits, said Gracie. “We’re well, well, well below the limit given by FDA.”

Dr. Charles Santerre, an associate professor of food and nutrition at Purdue University, agreed. He also pointed out that farmed salmon comply with other EPA standards. “Salmon is safe to eat since contaminants were well below limits established by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA),” said Santerre.

Although farm-raised salmon contains modestly more of the analyzed chemicals than does wild salmon, to forego eating salmon for that reason would do more harm than good for most people, Santerre added.

He pointed out that the American Heart Association estimates 250,000 people die each year from sudden cardiac arrest. If 40 percent of those people ate more farm-raised salmon–thereby increasing their intake of highly beneficial omega fatty acids–100,000 people would increase their odds of avoiding such a death. By contrast, only one would hypothetically contract cancer as a result of increasing their intake of the chemicals reported in the Science article.

Likening the consumption of farm-raised salmon to automobile passengers wearing seatbelts, Santerre said, “Some people have died as a result of wearing seat belts, but the number of people saved by wearing seat belts is far greater. The comparative benefit of wearing your seat belt far outweighs the small risk of injury or death.”

“We have so many people to feed and not an inexhaustible supply of fish in the wild, and a lot of the fisheries have become exhausted, so this is a very difficult issue,” said Lynn Goldman, a scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. “It’s not that easy to say, ‘Okay, well, just eat wild fish.'”

Said Ken Green, director of the Centre for Studies in Risk, Regulation, and Environment at Canada’s Fraser Institute, “Journalists covering the [Science] article, rather than simply quoting alarmists, needed to dig into the article itself, and ask hard questions about the sample size of the study, its meaning in a chronological perspective (PCB levels are already declining rapidly), and its meaning with regard to alternative food choices.

“As a report by the National Academies of Science points out,” Green noted, “people consume far higher levels of PCBs and other persistent environmental chemicals in other foods, including beef, poultry, and dairy products.”

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

For more information …

Visit the Salmon of the Americas Web site at, and Steven Milloy’s site at

The Capital Research Center’s November 2003 Foundation Watch report, “The International Green Agenda,” is available on the group’s Web site at