LEE HOCHBERG: Salmon is one of the country's most popular fresh fishes. More than 23 million people eat it more than once a month. ( Laughter in background ) But at the Pike Place fish market in Seattle, where buying salmon usually is a fun activity, reports that some salmon may be toxic have shoppers worried.
SUSAN SCHWEPPE: Would I buy it today? No. No.
LEE HOCHBERG: Why?
SUSAN SCHWEPPE: Because I don't think we need to put any more toxins in our body, and I am skeptical about what we're doing to the entire food chain.
LEE HOCHBERG: A top scientific journal recently published a study that farm-raised salmon contained high levels of chemical contaminants. Eighty-six percent of fresh salmon sold in the U.S. is farm-raised, mostly imported from Chile and Canada. Shoppers at Pike Place Market usually can choose between wild salmon, which swims freely through Northwest rivers to the Pacific Ocean, and those farm-raised breeds. Market manager Dick Yokoyama says customers shopping for king and other types of salmon are concerned.
DICK YOKOYAMA: Oh, yeah. They're asking. Like, they come up and they buy the king, and then they notice that it's farm king and they'll change their mind, you know, and buy something else.
LEE HOCHBERG: The study in Science magazine was the largest of its kind. It analyzed two tons of farm salmon for 14 different organic contaminants, including PCBs and dioxins, which can cause cancer. It compared levels in those fish from more than 50 farms in eight regions of the world, to contamination levels found in wild salmon. It concluded farm salmon had ten times the level of contaminants of wild salmon. And eating farm salmon can increase one's risk of getting cancer.
DR. DAVID CARPENTER: Our recommendation for the average consumer eating farm salmon is not to eat more than one meal a month without ... unless you're willing to increase your risk of cancer.
LEE HOCHBERG: Study co-author Dr. David Carpenter says some European farmed salmon should be consumed only once every four months, and he especially advised females to reduce consumption, as dioxins and PCBs are known to interfere with the developing fetus.
DR. DAVID CARPENTER: If a woman that's pregnant has these compounds in her body in excess, the child that's born will have a reduced IQ, will have a shortened attention span, it's at greater risk for disruption of endocrine systems, both thyroid hormones and sex hormones. And these compounds suppress the immune system, making one more vulnerable to infections.
LEE HOCHBERG: The recommendations have been disputed by the $60 billion farm salmon industry, concentrated in Norway, United Kingdom, Canada and Chile. The farms provide fish year round worldwide, including what's sold in most U.S. groceries at cheaper prices than wild salmon. The contamination comes from this food, fed to the fish. At a farm outside Seattle, operated by Pan Fish Canada, more than a million salmon live in net tents 80 feet square and about 10 feet deep.
While wild salmon scavenge the ocean for nutrients, these farm salmon are fed food pellets made of fish oil and ground up smaller fish like herring, mackerel and anchovies. The smaller fish contain contaminants from industrial pollution that's spread through the environment. So the pellets actually contaminate the salmon. Industry leaders don't dispute that. But they disagree how dangerous the contamination is.
DAN SWECKER: I think there was a level of PCBs and dioxins that the industry was aware of. But we believe that they're safe for human consumption.
LEE HOCHBERG: Dan Swecker of the Washington Fish Growers Association says overemphasis on the health risks of farmed salmon ignores their health benefit, like the omega 3 fatty acids they contain that reduce the risk of heart attack.
DAN SWECKER: I think it's a travesty. I actually think it's an attack on the consumer, because it's denying the consumer the benefit of this healthy product in terms of heart impact, Alzheimer's Disease, ADD -- salmon is one of the most important tools that we have to protect the health of the American consumer, and this study scares them away.
LEE HOCHBERG: The salmon scare indeed comes at a time when many health-conscious consumers have turned away from red meat and to salmon for health reasons. Many, like Rob Miller, who manages the Pan Fish farm, wonder what they can eat.
ROB MILLER: I'll go ahead and eat farmed salmon once a month and then, you know, go to McDonald's the rest of the month and see what gets you first, the PCBs and the dioxins and cancer or the heart disease.
LEE HOCHBERG: The government has been unable to resolve the salmon dispute. Two federal agencies with expertise on contaminants offer conflicting pieces of advice. The Environmental Protection Agency guidelines say ingesting contaminated fish once a month does increase the risk of cancer by one in 100,000. Those are the guidelines used by the study's researchers. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, on the other hand, says the contamination levels aren't high enough to be concerned about. It's encouraging consumers to keep eating farmed salmon.
DR. LESTER CRAWFORD: I hope you don't say to the viewers that they shouldn't eat salmon or they shouldn't eat but one meal of salmon every two months, because the data does not support that.
LEE HOCHBERG: FDA Deputy Commissioner Dr. Lester Crawford says study scientists shouldn't have used EPA guidelines for contaminants. He says those standards are designed to protect the environment, not people. Instead, the scientists should have used FDA guidelines, which regulate food and allow 40 times more contamination. The scientists answer, that those FDA standards are too lax; written in 1984, they're out of date.
DR. DAVID CARPENTER: The public health position, I do not believe that the FDA guidelines in any way shape or form are protective of human health.
LEE HOCHBERG: The study team says the FDA is compromised by a mixed mission: It's required both to protect the public and to consider any economic impact a public warning could have on the fish business.
DAN SWECKER: Based to a great degree on preventing economic loss to the industry, therefore, they do not reflect appropriate health consumption-based advice to the consumer.
DR. DAVID CARPENTER: FDA is not concerned about the health of the industry. It's concerned about the health of human beings, and we don't take that into consideration. We're talking about public health and whether people ought to stop eating salmon, and the answer to that is no.
LEE HOCHBERG: The FDA says it will increase its sampling of fish feed as a result of the study. Still, the industry is bracing for an economic jolt. It fears some seafood restaurants may remove farmed salmon from their menus. Duke's Chowder House in Seattle already has vilified farmed fish in its radio commercials.
RADIO COMMERCIAL: You know, you could be getting poisoned if you eat somewhere other than Duke's Chowder House. Studies now show farm-raised salmon is dangerous to your health. That's why we serve only wild salmon.
LEE HOCHBERG: The aquaculture industry says it's improving its feed to reduce the risk of contamination, replacing some fish components with vegetable proteins and oil. The industry says consumers themselves can reduce risk by cooking farmed salmon before eating it, and removing the skin, where much of the contamination is concentrated.