Ocean-Farmed Salmon & PCBs

Numerous independent research studies - including those by the FDA, National Cancer Institute and National Academy of Sciences - have concluded that the PCB levels in both farmed and wild salmon are well below the FDA tolerance levels for PCBs. For example, in a 2003 Environmental Working Group (EWG) report on PCBs, farmed salmon was found to contain a low 275 parts per billion, whereas beef was found to contain 2,016 parts per billion, and poultry 386 parts per billion.

Low PCB Levels in Salmon

It is widely agreed that salmon’s health benefits overshadow miniscule traces of the compound, and the EPA has criticized statements to the contrary as "politically, not toxicologically, driven."

As Harvard epidemiology and nutrition professor Eric Rimm said in October 2004, "The health benefits of the protein and omega-3 fatty acids found in wild salmon or [ocean] farmed salmon from Canada or Chile, where the U.S. gets most of its salmon, will almost definitely outweigh the risks for American adults where the leading cause of death is from cardiovascular disease."

Salmon of the America (SOTA) ocean-farmed salmon producers routinely test their fish using certified, independent labs employing state of the art detection technology for PCB levels. This is done both as a routine quality control check on their operations and to satisfy specific requests of their customers for assurances and certification that PCB levels are not just within U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tolerance, but as low as possible.

These tests normally show ocean-farmed salmon to be 1/100 of the FDA tolerance for PCBs. The ongoing FDA "market basket" study shows, for instance, a decline of 28% from 1998 to 2001 (the last year for which "market basket" numbers are currently available).

On the other hand, wild salmon are not routinely tested for PCBs. In spite of the fact that much of the focus has been to compare PCB levels in ocean-farmed to wild salmon, the levels actually documented in large independent studies in wild salmon have been ignored.

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PCB Questions & Answers

What are PCBs?

PCBs are polychlorinated biphenyls that were used in manufacturing for almost half a century. When PCBs were found to be toxic, the United States banned their use in 1979. There is no scientific evidence showing that PCBs in fish or the environment have ever caused cancer in humans. In fact, workers in industrial settings exposed to PCBs on a daily basis show no higher rates of cancer than the rest of the population.

Are ocean-farmed salmon high in PCBs?

  • Ocean-farmed salmon from Chile, Canada and the USA typically have 1/100 of the FDA tolerance for PCBs. Routine testing shows levels often 1/400 of the tolerance.
  • While the National Academy of Sciences review of PCBs in foods made recommendations on decreasing consumption for other PCB-contaminated foods, it did not mention limiting fish/salmon intake.
  • The FDA recently reviewed the tolerance level and affirmed that it is protective of consumers.
  • The National Cancer Institute states that there is no conclusive evidence that the low PCB levels found in salmon are linked to cancer.

Are ocean-farmed salmon higher in PCBs than wild salmon?

Wild salmon are not routinely tested as ocean-farmed salmon are, but several studies found higher PCB levels in wild salmon than are found in ocean-farmed salmon. These were in the Puget Sound of Washington State and the Copper River of Alaska. Both were government studies of a large sample. PCB levels were not above the FDA tolerance and this fish, as is the case with ocean-farmed salmon, is safe to eat.

Does the number of PCBs in ocean-farmed salmon comprise a significant part of the PCBs people ingest?

Based on the average per capita consumption, people get 8 times the amount of PCBs in a year from eating beef. PCBs from salmon represent about six percent of the total PCB consumption levels.

What are the most recent PCB tests and when were they done?

Testing of wild salmon was conducted by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (ADEC). These salmon were caught in 2002 and the study was published in 2004. Salmon of the Americas (SOTA) paid for the testing, which was conducted by an independent, non-profit laboratory, Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) and verified by Cantox Environmental. The procedures and testing methodology for the studies are available in the ADEC report (PDF) and from the SWRI labs (PDF).

Is this testing more accurate than previous testing?

The last large scale study to sample ocean-farmed and wild salmon for PCBs, published in 2004 in the Science journal, used the same testing methods the most recent ADEC and SWRI studies. In fact, the SWRI results were verified at the same laboratory that did the large-scale study analysis.

Wild: The study published in Science included species of wild salmon not found on sale as fresh salmon in this sampling. This distorted the average for wild salmon. The ADEC study separates sockeye and Chinook salmon, the principal species sold as fresh, and therefore is more representative of what consumers buy in stores. The ADEC study results are more in line with results from other independent studies of wild salmon.

Ocean-Farmed: The scientists working on the large-scale study tested the ocean-farmed salmon two years before Science published the study, and more than 30 months before SWI tested salmon in the most current ocean-farmed salmon testing. Salmon ocean farming is a dynamic operation, especially with regard to feeding practices. During the time between the collection of the fish and the publication of the Science study, PCB levels in farmed salmon had already dropped significantly.

This was demonstrated by ocean-farmed salmon’s declining PCB levels in FDA market basket studies during the two years preceding the publication of the large-scale study. The SWRI tests recently completed show further declines, as expected.

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What do PCB levels in wild and ocean-farmed salmon mean to consumers?

Fresh and frozen wild and ocean-farmed salmon contain essentially the same amount of PCBs. The levels in both are about 1/200 of the FDA tolerance and as stated by the leading public health organizations in the U.S., Canada and Europe, pose no risk to consumers.

The levels currently found in wild or ocean-farmed salmon should not be used to limit consumption to any specific level.

For more information, read the ADEC report »

The Newest PCB Research

New test results for SOTA ocean-farmed Atlantic salmon show continuing declines in PCB levels. Conducted in May 2005, the tests show that the PCB levels in ocean-farmed salmon continue to decline significantly and are now almost identical to those found in wild salmon. The PCB levels for ocean-farmed and wild salmon are now approximately 1/200 of the USFDA tolerance and well within tolerances set anywhere in the world. Collection of samples and sampling methodology were performed by impartial third parties to ensure confidence in the results. Read expert testimonials on the benefits of salmon »

Health Benefits of Ocean-Farmed Salmon

Ocean-farmed salmon is one of the best sources of Omega-3 fatty acids, providing up to four times the amount of other fish.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to prevent heart attacks, stroke and Alzheimer’s disease, minimize arthritis symptoms, reduce hypertension, and control blood glucose levels. Recent studies have found that women who eat fatty fish once a week have a 40 percent lower risk of heart disease and seniors who eat fish once a week cut their risk of Alzheimer’s by 60 percent. Learn more »

Salmon of the Americas' Pledge

While the risk of these trace amounts of contaminants is yet unproven, we agree that any contaminants are unacceptable in any food. Member companies of Salmon of the Americas continue to bring considerable resources to bear on reducing the levels of PCBs in our salmon. This effort has been successful in reducing levels to date and future work, both by member companies and a SOTA coordinated effort, will continue to move ocean-farmed salmon to even lower levels.

We hope to someday to completely remove all traces of contaminants in salmon.

We also look forward to working with responsible non-industry parties to identify the problems and opportunities involved in reaching these goals in a way that keeps the needs of consumers in mind as we deal with these issues in an honest and open fashion.

Expert Testimonials »

Minimizing PCB Intake

Unfortunately, PCBs and similar compounds are so widespread in the environment that they are in the air, water and food sources. Choosing foods that provide the greatest health benefits relative to the trace amounts of PCBs is important for minimizing PCB intake.

Both ocean-farmed and wild salmon are well below the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) tolerance levels for PCBs.

The bar graph below is based on the 2003 Environmental Working Group (EWG) report on PCBs in salmon and indicates the generally accepted average PCB content and the per capita consumption.

As illustrated, salmon accounts for about six percent of the PCBs ingested from these animal protein sources. At current levels, PCB intake from salmon is 1/8 the amount typically ingested through beef.

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