Monday, 12 December 2016

Why I would never eat farmed salmon by Paolo Tullio

Well, let me put my oar in straight away. I wouldn't eat farmed salmon if you paid me. Why? Well, the taste for starters, plus everything I've read about it over the last few years. But let's start at the beginning ...

The Irish attitude to fish is a curious one. Here we are, an island nation surrounded by the Atlantic, and we take little pleasure in the fruits of the sea. Elsewhere in Europe, fish is seen as a treat; in Italy it costs more than meat. If you really want to impress Italians, give them a meal composed of fish.
Why fish should be held in such low esteem here is a mystery. Could it be a remnant of penitential fish on Fridays? Hard to know, but this much is clear from nutritional experts - eating fish is good for you.

Here's an example: according to a Harvard University study in Environmental Health Perspectives, pregnant women who ate more than two servings of low-mercury fish per week had children with IQ scores an average of four points higher with each extra serving of fish per week.
However, mothers who ate high mercury fish gave birth to children whose IQ scores average 7.5 points lower with each extra serving of fish. So if you want to increase the brain power of your unborn child, you need to eat fish. But it needs to be fish with low levels of mercury, like wild sea bass, anchovies, herring, mackerel and wild salmon. Mercury is a profoundly toxic element which has the habit of collecting in the livers and body fats of organisms that ingest it.

But mercury isn't the only contaminant that you can find in fish. Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, are a group of 400 or so chlorine compounds that do not appear naturally in nature, but are found increasingly in the oceans as a result of industrial pollution. PCBs are carcinogenic and are found to some degree in all fish.

In January 2004, a report in Science journal started a food scare. Researchers tested about 700 salmon - wild and farmed - for PCBs, dioxin, toxaphene and dieldrin.

Farmed salmon had seven times higher levels of these contaminants, and European farmed salmon had higher levels than American farmed salmon. A study by our Food Safety Authority (FSAI) found Irish farmed salmon contains two-and-half times more dioxin than wild salmon and more than four times the amount of PCBs than wild salmon.
The various reports on toxins in fish were the basis of the advice from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that you should eat farmed salmon no more than once a month.

This is based on their view of risk assessment, which is that a tolerable level of cancer is one in 10,000. This makes the EPA advice more conservative than the FSAI, which doesn't on balance consider farmed salmon a risk to health.
So the scientists are not unanimous on the health aspects of farmed salmon, but there are other issues that need addressing. Not long ago salmon was becoming rare and expensive as wild stocks were over-fished. Then came the salmon farms and now salmon outsells all other fish in Ireland. It's cheap, readily available and still carries the cachet of a noble fish. But let's look carefully at farmed salmon. Farmed salmon are similar to battery hens. They're bred and raised in overcrowded conditions, they get no exercise and therefore contain more fat, and they get more antibiotics per pound of body weight than any other food animal.

Because the salmon's natural diet includes krill -- small crustaceans -- their flesh is pink. Farmed salmon get colourants in their feed instead to give their flesh a pink colour.
If you're concerned about the conservation of our natural resources, consider this. Farmed fish are fed on fish meal. This meal is made from wild fish, but you can't get one ton of meal from one ton of wild fish, you need much more. And then, one ton of meal doesn't produce one ton of salmon, but a lot less.

So when you combine these together, you need a lot of wild fish to produce one ton of wild salmon. Some estimates put it as high as six ton of wild fish to produce one ton of farmed salmon. Left in the wild, those fish could have fed many salmon. Instead, we're depleting the wild stocks to create less farmed fish.
Ocean ecosystems have a great capacity to recover from over-fishing, but the ocean's fisheries are in a serious state of decline. A study of human impact on marine biodiversity published by Science in 2006 concluded that by 2048 all species of wild seafood could collapse, their numbers declining to a 10th of historic highs.

Because salmon is farmed in such large numbers and in enclosed spaces, it becomes ready prey for parasites. Farmed salmon can have thousands of times the amount of lice that wild ones do, so the fish are doused with chemicals.
Fish excrement and chemical residues fill the bays beneath the cages, damaging the marine environment, polluting shell-fish beds and spreading disease up the food chain.

I'd suggest to you that the taste of a flabby, lice-infested, unnaturally fed farmed salmon is nowhere near as good as the taste of a wild fish. I see nothing wrong with returning to a state where salmon is rare and expensive. It should be an occasional treat, not a daily staple. Wild salmon is free of antibiotics, pesticides and synthetic colouring agents. It's much higher in the essential omega-3 oils, so it's good for heart and brain.

You don't need to eat farmed salmon for health reasons then: oily fish high in omega-3 is available, such as mackerel and herring. They're not endangered, not farmed, they're cheap and they're good.
Beware the marketeers and their sales pitches. Because farmed salmon is meeting some consumer resistance, the name is changing -- 'ocean raised' is another name for farmed fish.

And if you think 'organic' salmon is somehow different, it isn't. It's a farmed fish and apart from a different diet, it's farmed in the same way.

The only truly organic salmon is a wild one.