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Activists use science to scare us


Activists use science to scare us

28 February 2004

The recent study that alleged to show farmed salmon, as opposed to wild salmon, as so toxic that it was unsafe to eat more than once every other month or so -- lest it cause cancer -- is yet another example of the misuse of science in the name of some political cause or other.

We've seen it with global warming and with secondhand smoke, with claims about the efficacy of gun control and the hazards of private healthcare: Political activists stake out a policy position, then attempt to justify it by backfilling scientific ''evidence'' that supports their desired policy end.

Before going farther, let's put the recent study in perspective: The data seem sound, it's the conclusions that appear politically motivated.

Many nutrition and food-safety experts have objected to the farmed-salmon warnings contained in a recent Science magazine article. Few critics suggest that the researchers' observations are wrong, but rather that they make a leap from that science to public alarm that cannot be justified by their data.

Farmed salmon does appear to contain more contaminants than its wild cousin, but it just doesn't matter. Neither version of the tasty, pink-fleshed fish contains enough toxins for consumers to worry about.

Farmed salmon probably does have contaminant levels upward of 11 times greater than the wild ones. The study discovered PCB levels in farmed salmon were, on average, nearly 37 parts per billion, but just five parts per billion in the wild variety. But the Food and Drug Administration's safe level is 2,000 parts per billion -- 55 times greater than the level found in the farmed fish.

Dr. Charles Santerre, an authority on contaminant levels in food and a professor of nutrition and food safety at Purdue University, estimated that, "If 100,000 people ate eight ounces of farm-raised salmon twice a week for 70 years, contaminants in the fish would cause one additional case of cancer.''

I don't know about you, but I like my chances, especially if eating salmon lowers my risk of heart attack by replacing dangerous fats in my diet.

Shunning FDA standards

Some experts have criticized the study's testing of raw fish instead of cooked, because most toxins are in the skin, which few consumers eat, or in the layer of fat immediately below the skin, which burns off during cooking. But this would be true for wild salmon, too.

So unless no contaminants make it into the flesh, then the relative levels of contamination -- farmed vs. fresh -- should hold up whether the filets were grilled or sushi when they were tested.

The apparent manipulation of science to serve political ends comes from the study's deliberate shunning of the FDA's safe-toxin standard in favor of the Environmental Protection Agency's. The EPA doesn't have a safe-toxin standard on commercial fish, only sport fish. On commercial fish it defers to the FDA. But the EPA's sport-fish toxin standard is much lower than the FDA's for commercial fish, low enough to justify a declaration that farmed salmon is potentially carcinogenic.

Activist foundations and researchers who oppose fish farming know that if they can't close fish farming down democratically, a good health scare will drive consumers away and accomplish the same end by throwing fish farmers out of business.

And you can't create a good scare unless you can find some way to use the word ''cancer.'' So shop for toxin standards until you find the one that lets you make the claim you wanted all along.

Lorne Gunter
Columnist, Edmonton Journal
Editorial Board Member, National Post

Related story:

Fish-farming study reeks to high heaven: Foundation-funded scientists do their darnedest to damage another industry
The Edmonton Journal, Sunday 18 January 2004

Index to some of Lorne Gunter's articles

On global warming

On other issues

whiterose.gif (6796 bytes)The White Rose
Thoughts are Free

Posted 2004 03 03