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WASHINGTON - Farm-raised salmon contain higher than desirable levels of cancer-causing PCBs, according to a study by an environmental organization to be released Wednesday.
The study, by the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, found that 10 samples of store-purchased, farm-raised salmon had five times more PCBs than salmon caught in the wild. Based on those findings, the study's authors recommend that consumers limit their intake of farm-raised salmon to one meal a month.
But the salmon industry had a ready response to the study: The levels of PCBs in salmon are within acceptable levels as defined by the Food and Drug Administration.
"The FDA is a competent authority," said David Rideout, executive director of the Canadian Aquaculture Industry Alliance. "The PCB levels that they found were well, well, well below the FDA standards. We believe we have a very safe and healthy product."
The study comes at a time when salmon consumption is soaring, having more than doubled during the last decade, according to the National Fisheries Institute, an industry trade association. Salmon is now the third most popular seafood eaten in the United States behind shrimp and tuna, according to the institute.
In its study, the Environmental Working Group said the PCBs in the fish reached a level that triggers a recommendation by the Environmental Protection Agency that salmon only be eaten once a month. The EPA does not directly regulate the amount of PCBs found in salmon, but issues guidelines so that states can consider adopting them for their own use.
While acknowledging that the sample size was small, officials at the Environmental Working Group said they hoped to set off "alarm bells" that would prompt the federal government to take notice.
While the impact of the study is unclear, it does refocus attention on the unusual disparity between the EPA and the FDA in defining acceptable levels of PCBs, a chemical mixture used as a coolant and lubricant that was banned in the 1970s. Exposure to PCBs may increase the risk of cancer and cause developmental problems in infants.
"The federal agencies are sending confusing messages to the public," said David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany, SUNY. Carpenter said he believes the EPA standard should be the hallmark.
Still, he said the new study was far from comprehensive.
"Ten fish is a very small sample," Carpenter said. "If this is characteristic of the farmed fish supply then we have a real problem. Certainly there needs to be a larger sample than 10 fish."
Under the FDA guidelines, commercial fish can contain up to 2 parts per million of PCBs. The EPA guidelines, which some state environmental agencies have adopted, caution against eating any fish with more than .097 parts per million of PCBs.
The Environmental Working Group's study found that the 10 salmon samples had an average level of PCBs of .027 parts per million, five times more than the amounts found in wild salmon. While that is within the amount the EPA finds acceptable, the EPA recommends eating salmon with that PCB level only once a month.
FDA officials said they began a review of their standards for dioxins and dioxin-like substances, such as PCBs, in 2000, including an examination of farm-grown and wild salmon. But they defended the FDA's current standard, which has been in place since 1984.
"Part of our equation is looking at the overall picture, the positives in nutrition versus the trace levels of PCBs that may be remaining in our environment," said Terry Troxell, director of the FDA's office of plant and dairy foods and beverages. He noted that the level of PCBs in foods had dropped about 90 percent since the 1970s.
Troxell said his office would consider the Environmental Working Group's findings, but he added that the FDA is urging consumers to continue eating salmon and other fish because of the health benefits.
The Environmental Working Group study said the fish, which are raised in pens in the ocean, absorb PCBs by eating fishmeal, a combination of pulverized fish and fish oil that helps fatten up salmon. Based on their findings, the study's authors concluded that farmed salmon was the most PCB-contaminated protein source in the U.S. food industry, with four times the levels found in beef and three times higher than other seafood.
(c) 2003, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.