Issue of January, 19, 2004
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Accents
Salmon Producers Go on the Offensive
By Gustavo González

Chilean salmon farmers deny their fish are carcinogenic, contrary to what was reported in Science magazine. Ecologists and consumers are demanding more rigorous standards to certify salmon that is safe to eat.

SANTIAGO, (Tierramérica).- As if it were a matter of war, or a championship soccer game, Chilean salmon farmers believe the best defense is offense, and are on the warpath to disqualify a scientific report that reveals the presence of cancer-causing compounds in the fish they sell.

The study by U.S. and Canadian scientists, coordinated by the universities of Indiana and New York and published in Science magazine, found high levels of toxins in farm-raised salmon, including Chilean salmon, compared to levels in wild fish.

The study is "dangerous, alarmist and a shot in the dark," says Leonel Sierralta, environmental advisor to SalmonChile, the name used by the Association of Salmon and Trout Producers in this South American country.

"One cannot say that eating 200 grams of salmon is going to cause cancer, because it is a disease that is produced by recurring exposure to a carcinogenic substance," Sierralta told the Chilean press.

Meanwhile, environmentalists and consumers have issued a call for more rigorous standards in certifying salmon and have demanded that the companies involved comply with their social responsibilities.

"We are demanding the adoption of rigorous standards for (health and environmental) certification of salmon. That is what needs to be done, instead of trying to invalidate a serious report," commented environmental economist Cristián Gutiérrez, of the international watchdog Oceana.

The study published in Science analyzed and compared more than two metric tons of cuts of salmon that had been raised on farms and that had been caught in the wild.

More than 700 filets tested by experts in toxicology, biology and statistics came from eight of the world's major producers, whether of Atlantic salmon (Scotland, Britain, and the east coast of the United States and Canada) or Pacific salmon (North America and Chile).

The study analyzed the presence of 14 toxins considered carcinogenic by the U.S. health authorities, and concluded that farm-raised Atlantic salmon, particularly from Scotland, contains high levels of 13 toxins, much higher than the levels of Pacific salmon.

But the scientists warn that even the farm-raised salmon from Chile or the northwestern U.S. state of Washington, which are among the least contaminated, contain more PCB, dioxins and dieldrin than wild salmon.

These substances are among the 12 persistent organic pollutants, POPs, also known as the "dirty dozen". They are pesticides or products or byproducts of industrial activities and are characterized by their long life, the facility of their dispersal, and their accumulation in the food chain.

Exposure to POPs is a risk factor for cancer and genetic mutations, among other health impacts. The Stockholm Convention, adopted in 2001, regulates the control and elimination of these substances.

PCB is a highly carcinogenic compound and is found in farm-raised salmon because they are fed fishmeal and oil, say the experts.

In its conclusions, the study says that eating more than 200 grams of cultivated salmon a month, particularly Atlantic salmon, exposes one to cancer risks. In comparison, one could eat eight times more wild salmon without threatening one's health.

Chilean salmon entrepreneurs say the scientists used environmental criteria in the study, instead of a food-based perspective, which the fish farmers believe more appropriate.

"SalmonChile has dedicated itself to criticizing the report more than taking into consideration its conclusions. The research is very rigorous. Science is a highly respected journal and does not publish just anything," responded biologist Alejandro Pérez, of Oceana.

"The Science study brings to the forefront the issue of the social responsibility of businesses," commented Jorge Vargas, director of the Latin American office of Consumers International, based in Santiago.

"A company, in addition to having duties and obligations to its shareholders, is also responsible for the social and environmental impacts of its activities," the representative of the world's leading consumer watchdog told Tierramérica.

"The fact that Salmon of America, an entity comprising producers from Canada, Chile and the United States, has admitted the existence of contaminants resulting from fish meal should mean the immediate adoption of urgent measures to protect health and the right of consumers to have safe, nontoxic food," Vargas said.

"The obsession with intensive production and with conquering markets and increasing profits implies hurried processes that complicate or weaken the controls necessary for the entire food chain and which impede adequate evaluation of the products offered the consumer," he added.

Oceana's Gutiérrez says it is likely that the report's findings will affect salmon exports, as consumers in Europe, Japan and the United States "are relatively responsible. They aren't naive. They inform themselves about the characteristics and origin of the foods they eat."

* Gustavo González is an IPS correspondent

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