Is there something fishy about the health advice on farmed salmon?

SMOKED salmon is the easy part of Christmas. Throw it on brown bread, with lemon and black pepper, and the innocents will think it’s posh and that you’ve spent a lot. 

Is there something fishy about the health advice on farmed salmon?

But you can get 100g of Everyday Value smoked salmon in Tesco — “responsibly sourced from the waters around Scotland, Norway or Ireland” — for €3.59.

But, today, as many of us prepare for the big Christmas supermarket shop, the Friends of the Irish Environment have ramped up their boycott of farmed salmon, strengthened by the news that the international Slow Food Movement — which counts among its supporters Bridgestone’s Sally McKenna and that icon of Irish sustainable food, Darina Allen — has condemned intensive open-pen fish farms.

“Open-net pen aquaculture is not a solution to the problem of overfishing,” says Slow Food.

“It damages natural ecosystems on a local and a global level, including wild stocks, habitats and water quality.”

The Italian-based Slow Food Movement is dedicated to linking “the pleasure of good food with a commitment to their community and the environment” and the FIE boycott campaign is appealing to our consciences about what they deem the dangers of farming salmon in cages in the open sea.

For example, sea-lice infestation among farmed salmon impacts wild stocks.

FIE reckons that between 12% and 44% fewer wild salmon are now spawning, but Bord Iascaigh Mhara denies that there has been any impact on wild stocks.

Most people can’t be bothered with the environment, when they’re Christmas shopping.

What they care about is a good price for a product that will make a starter Tesco calls “moreish”.

And farmed salmon is a healthy food, isn’t it? With all that Omega 3 and fish oils and low-fat protein, it’s a super-food.

Is this true? We don’t know.

Some reports show levels of Omega 3 dropping precipitously in farmed salmon, but there is so much money bound up in huge, multi-national fish-farming enterprises that we can’t rely on governments to tell us the truth about the healthfulness of farmed salmon.

Concerns about toxicity from carcinogens, such as dioxins, PCBs (man-made hydrocarbons), and BFRs (flame retardants), in North Atlantic farmed salmon have been circulating since the publication of research on contamination a decade ago.

Last year, the Norwegian ministry of health warned mothers-to-be and children not to eat more than two portions a week of Norwegian farmed salmon, because of its toxicity.

That’s more than most of us eat anyway.

But it was significant in Norway, headquarters of the global fish-farming multinational Marine Harvest, that its government was issuing any kind of health warning about its farmed salmon.

What was far more significant, however, was that the Centre of Norwegian Sea Products found a willing accomplice in the Norwegian government in hiding this advice from international markets.

Contrasting advice in English, featuring a family of little blonde Nordies tucking into salmon under the heading, “Salmon is healthy! And good!”, was provided by the centre and published on the Norwegian health ministry’s website.

A similarly misleading French translation was provided to the Norwegian embassy in France.

When the Norwegian journalist, Morten Stroknes, found this out there was war.

There were claims that the Norwegian authorities only cared about the health of Norwegians.

But what is probably more important is the wider issue, that, as Stroknes said: “It is beyond the mandate of the Centre of Norwegian Sea Products to give health advice.”

Just in time for Christmas, the Norwegian health ministry has lifted the warning on its salmon, with a report that was welcomed yesterday by Bord Iascaigh Mhara.

The report concludes that “the benefits clearly outweigh the negligible risk presented by current levels of the contaminants, and other known undesirable substances in fish”, and adds that the failure to eat fish once a week is the health risk.

“The change of tack by the Norwegians is, in our view, an acceptance of the very considerable consensus internationally, among a host of national food-safety agencies — who operate fiercely and independently on the consumers’ side — that the consumption of salmon, both farmed and wild, is not only safe, but advisable from a nutritional perspective,” said BIM.

The report has been launched in France with a huge publicity campaign, much to the disgust of the European Greens, who argue that salmon farms should be on land.

They say that the farmed fish was only tested for three toxins, which are decreasing in the environment anyway and that European-allowed toxin levels are 20 times lower for farmed fish than for meat, despite the fact that farmed salmon fat can have 10 times more pollutants than occurs in beef, poultry or pork.

They put this down to powerful Norwegian lobbying. But can we, in Ireland, trust agencies of the State to give us independent advice about the health benefits, or risks, of farmed salmon?

Why, then, at that meeting last January, between Marine Harvest, Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and Marine Minister Simon Coveney, did the latter promise that “the new structural changes in the Marine Institute will be monitored to ensure they produce a faster turnaround on scientific advice”?

What right does a commercial multinational have to dictate the amount of time it takes to “produce” scientific advice from a State-funded institute?

None, I would say, but Mssrs Kenny and Coveney obviously disagree. No wonder Marine Harvest considered the meeting “very constructive”.

And when you look for independent advice on the food safety of farmed salmon, what you get is sketchy.

In 2007, the Marine Institute brought out a leaflet reassuring Irish consumers about the level of flame-retardant contamination in Irish farmed salmon.

The Institute reported that the UK’s Food Standards Authority had found much higher levels of BFR contamination in a certain British river system, but had still ruled that eating one portion of the fish every week was “unlikely to represent a risk to health.”

The leaflet trumpeted the advice of our own Food Safety Authority of Ireland that eating one portion of farmed Irish salmon a week is “safe” and has “proven health benefits.”

The small print says the UK study’s results were “tentative” and admits that the Marine Institute only tested “a small number of samples”.

That’s particularly ironic, given that the European Commission’s stated reason for closing its investigation, in October, into the impact of sea lice from farmed salmon on the wild population was that they needed “uncontested scientific evidence.”

Uncontested evidence on the food safety of dead fish harvested for consumption is easier to come by and should be available to the Irish consumer.

There can be no grounds for suspicion that the intertwined economic and political interests of the Government have any influence whatsoever on the workings of the Marine Institute and, downstream of them, on advice from the Food Safety Authority of Ireland.

We have to be absolutely certain that the advice we are getting about the safety of fish farming, both to the environment and to our health, is wholly independent, or it will make a mockery of a people who count The Salmon of Knowledge among their founding myths.

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