Red Mountain Spa (Utah)
Last year, distinguished professor and M.I.T.-trained Ronald Hites, led scientists from Indiana University, Citizens for a Better Environment, Rensselaer, AXYS Analytical Services, and Cornell to completion of the largest (to date) international safety assessment of farmed salmon (1). Analyzing sufficient samples (approx. 700) from world producers to forge reliable statistical comparisons, Hite et al determined levels of organochlorine contaminants (PCB’s, toxaphene, etc.) in both farmed and wild salmon, harvested at specific global sites. With data generated and statistically assessed, EPA models were used for predicting carcinogenic risk to consumers.
Published in The Journal of Science, the researchers concluded that you and I should consume no more than ½ to 2 servings of farmed salmon per month! Results this controversial quickly caught the eye of the media. As the word hit the streets, a groundswell of consumer apprehension ensued resulting in lesser consumption. Catalyzing the ballooning anxiety, environmental groups sued California producers and supermarkets for failing to notify consumers of the inherent risk. Needless to say, it’s been rough seas for the farmed salmon industry.
The work of the Hites group is known as the Pew Study, as funding was provided by the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia. The data, to some, may seem alarming but, hopefully, will motivate lawmakers to initiate regulation over an industry that has grown exponentially over the past four decades. For those not associated with the industry, the need for environment- and product-focused controls is evident. But during the interim, however, should the Pew findings be used as reasons to cease eating farmed salmon?
A strict interpretation of the study yields some less-than-scary data, i.e. eating the least contaminated farmed salmon (from the state of Washington or Chile) once a week has a lifetime cancer risk of 4 in 100,000, or 0.004%. Compared to the probability of dying by other means, shown on the chart below, the risk seems relatively low.
Odds of Dying in Your Lifetime
- Car Accident - 1 in 228
- Fall - 1 in 229
- Pedestrian Accident - 1 in 612
- Eating Farmed Salmon, 1x/week from WA or Chile - 1 in 25,000
- Being Struck by Lightning - 1 in 56,439
On the positive side, we’ve been told for years that heart-healthy omega-3 fat is abundant in fish, especially in farmed salmon. And, according to most researchers, eating farmed salmon once a week could conservatively reduce the risk of dying of sudden cardiac arrest by a whopping 30%! No question - deciding whether to continue or discontinue a dietary practice with an impressive 30% built-in life-support and a mere 0.004% risk is a virtual no-brainer.
Wild salmon were shown to contain approximately 5-25% of the organochlorines contained in their farmed counterparts, raised in the same area. Assuming a minimal reduction in cancer risk (my estimate for one 6 oz serving per week) from 1 in 25,000 (Washington salmon) to 1 in 100,000 (wild salmon) would, at first glance, appear to support consumption of wild salmon. However, wild salmon contains significantly less omega-3 fat than farmed. For example, a 6 oz serving of farmed Atlantic salmon has 18 grams of fat vs. 14 grams in wild Atlantic salmon, or 22% less. Conceivably, switching from farmed to wild salmon, 1 serving per week, could reduce our 30% advantage to less than 25% - not a wise choice for most of us at risk for cardiovascular disease. In lieu of what we now know, eating farmed salmon, once or twice a week, is recommended – particularly by those with heart health issues. For consumers who are not at risk for heart disease, have a family history of cancer, or simply enjoy eating seafood several times per week, the odds favor wild salmon.
Other ways of reducing the risk of cancer from farmed salmon include:
- Score the filets before cooking. Grill or broil until the internal temperature reaches 175o, letting the juices drip away. Before serving, remove the skin. According to the EPA, using this technique can reduce the risk of cancer by approximately 50%.
- When possible (and known), purchase farmed salmon raised in Washington or Chile. Farm-produced salmon from Canada, Maine, and Norway has about double the risk.
Farmed salmon from Scotland and the Faroe Islands have the highest level of pesticides and should be avoided, when possible.
1 Hites RA, Foran JA, Carpenter DO, Hamilton MC, Knuth BA, Schwager SJ. Global assessment of organic
Contiminants in farmed salmon. Science, Vol 303, Issue 5655, 9 January 2004.