No fishy tale for consumers, salmon is safe to eat

There is abundant evidence to prove that Irish salmon is safe for consumption, writes Richie Flynn

No fishy tale for consumers, salmon is safe to eat

Signing off her attack on the Christmas smoked salmon market, Irish Examiner columnist Victoria White ironically resurrects the ‘Salmon of Knowledge’ cliché, having just spent 1,100 words proving that, in the hands of an amateur, a little knowledge really is a dangerous thing.

If any consumer is put off eating smoked salmon over the festive season due to the article’s scaremongering, Ms White will have done actual damage to the nation’s health and nutrition, while threatening the jobs of salmon farmers, fishmongers, retailers, and the dozen or so family-owned, award-winning salmon smokeries within an hour’s drive of the Irish Examiner’s office.

While it’s too late to undo the damage caused, it must be repeated that consumers need not have any concerns while enjoying their smoked Irish salmon starter or breakfasting on it with scrambled eggs. Smoked Irish salmon is an important part of the festivities and, thanks to our farms dotted around the coast, a year-round pleasure that is sustainable and with an impeccable food safety record.

But in pursuit of a consumer scare on the busiest weekend of the year for smoked salmon sales, Ms White does not waste time citing any real health problem. Instead she opts to raise questions based largely on a disproven report from 2001. And any claims about food safety relying on official, independent advice should be ignored. And she practices while preaching by ignoring IFA, the Food Safety Authority (FSAI), and the Marine Institute, none of whom were asked to offer balance.

If Ms White had contacted any of the above, she would have found facts in the form of volumes of evidence. Consider this summary by UCD’s Prof Ronan Gormley in an article for the FSAI newsletter of December 2013. “Eat and enjoy one to two portions of Irish farmed salmon per week as part of a balanced diet,” Prof Gormley says.

“Irish farmed salmon is a high-quality product produced under strict protocols and controls in the waters around our coasts. It is readily available on a year-round basis at an affordable price and spearheads the drive towards increased seafood consumption in Ireland.

“Irish farmed salmon is an excellent source of omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and especially eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid which are important for cardiovascular and brain health. Farmed salmon also contains 17%-18% of high-quality protein and is a source of minerals and some vitamins.”

Another public document which Ms White would do well to peruse and cite is the Department of Agriculture, Marine, and Food’s 2014 national residue report for all food products. It says: “In 2013, in excess of 651 tests and a total of 1,494 measurements were carried out on 137 samples of farmed finfish for a range of residues. As in previous years, no non-compliant results were reported from the national monitoring programme for farmed finfish in 2013. Overall, the outcome for aquaculture demonstrates an absence of residues in farmed finfish in recent years, with no non-compliant results from routine targeted monitoring since 2005.”

In terms of the dangers of not eating enough oily fish such as salmon, Ms White could have quoted a report published this month by Norwegian state health authorities: “Following a comprehensive assessment of the scientific literature on the positive health effects of fish consumption and the contribution from fish to intake of beneficial compounds as well as exposure to hazardous contaminants in Norway, VKM concludes that the benefits clearly outweigh the negligible risk presented by current levels of contaminants and other known undesirable substances in fish. Furthermore, adults, including pregnant women, with fish consumption less than one serving per week may miss the beneficial effects on cardiovascular diseases and optimal neurodevelopment in the foetuses and infants.”

But any such state assurances or official reports are dismissed as they do not suit the biased view held by Ms White. She says that “we can’t rely on governments to tell us the truth about the healthfulness of farmed salmon”. Instead we should only believe rumours “circulating since the publication of research on contamination a decade ago”.

We should listen to inexpert, non-scientific organisations such as Slow Food and Friends of the Irish Environment. Most of all, we should distrust a modern, strictly regulated international industry that feeds millions of satisfied consumers every day.

Most of all, Ms White believes we cannot trust official health advice. This is a very odd position to take. Farmed salmon is tiny compared to meat and dairy but “big business” influences food safety advice in Ms White’s world. So we cannot believe those responsible for the protection of consumer health and who promote a safe and balanced diet on their advice for any food?

Does this extend to other government departments and agencies?

Is all State advice to be mistrusted and dismissed?

For a moment, we should all remember why a key state agency, the FSAI, which Ms White mistrusts so much and whose reputation she undermines, was set up in the first place — to re-establish confidence and watertight food safety systems in the wake of the BSE crisis, Europe and Ireland’s largest ever food scare.

The FSAI is science-based and independent of government control. Its board and staff under its legislation must put consumers first.

Its job is to ensure delivery of food safety services to a high standard by the various State agencies involved, to ensure that food produced or on sale complies with legal requirements, to work with the food industry to gain their commitment in the production of safe food, and to set food standards based on sound science and risk assessment.

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