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Species Focus: Farmed Salmon

Well-publicized health benefits and product versatility pull sales of this maligned fish out of the doldrums

By Howard Riell
June 01, 2005

Despite the chorus of voices raised against it these days, Atlantic salmon continues to enjoy widespread popularity in many quarters, and for a very simple reason.

“Atlantic salmon is a great fish,” says Jason Paine, general manager for Aquafarms International in Miami. “It’s great because of its availability and its high omega-3s. It comes in numerous product forms, and it’s easy to prepare. The salmon salespeople and marketers have been extremely fortunate to have such a great product. We were able to see double-digit growth for the past 10 years with very little effort.”

Aquafarms is not alone in its marketplace analysis of farmed salmon.

“It’s been a very good market this year,” says Bert Bachmann, vice president and general manager for Camanchaca, a family-owned seafood company in Miami with salmon-farming operations on the southernmost tip of Chile. “The ongoing news about the benefits of omega-3 has been very helpful.”

Research has shown the essential fatty acids found in seafood can help fight cystic fibrosis, reduce odds of negative gene expression, lower hostility in adolescents, clear blocked airways to help diabetics’ hearts, improve prison-inmate behavior, fight breast cancer and help maintain cardiovascular health.

Touting salmon’s omega-3 content is just one approach marketers have taken to move fish through the pipeline. And there are more fish than in 2004 to move through that pipe. Farmed-salmon imports, which fell 5 percent in 2004, were up 28 percent, to 108 million pounds, from the first quarter of 2004 to the first quarter of 2005.

Imports of Atlantic salmon this year could easily top 2004’s 385.4-million-pound total if more product is diverted from Europe to the United States. In mid-March, the European Union unveiled plans to hit Norwegian producers with tariffs averaging 16 percent.

Norway represents 60 percent of the EU salmon supply. The country shipped 12 million pounds of Atlantic salmon to the United States in 2004.

Any way you slice the supply pie, Atlantic salmon continues to make inroads in supermarkets and restaurants. The farmed fish can be prepared in a myriad of ways and, unlike wild salmon, is available fresh 365 days a year. Steady sourcing is just one factor that has enabled casual-dining chains like Ruby Tuesday and Applebee’s to add farmed salmon to their regular menu.

Most chefs choose to grill or broil farmed salmon. Some will “put it on the grill to get the grill marks, then finish it off in the oven,” notes Bachmann.

“That’s the beauty of Atlantic salmon,” says John Tuttle, a vice president of sales for Marine Harvest. The company recently merged with Stolt Sea Farm to create the world’s leading fish-farming company and producer and supplier of farmed salmon.

“Even in casual dining, where you’re perhaps not dealing with a chef but someone who hasn’t been trained to that level, salmon is still a very easy protein for them to utilize.”

Like other food categories, salmon is seeing rapid growth in value-added products. Retail establishments are offering product “where all you’ve got to do is heat it up,” says Bachmann. “The flavors are in there. You’ve got a very broad distribution of skinless, boneless portions in fresh or frozen form. Then you’ve got fillets that are either skin-on or skin-off, mostly fresh.”

According to Alex Trent of Salmon of the Americas, the amount of frozen product being purchased by retailers and restaurants is increasing. Growth of vacuum-packed product has been slower.

The growth in farmed-salmon imports and product development has occurred despite negative press focusing on health and environmental risks surrounding the species.

Weathering the storm

Environmental groups that have targeted other species have come after Atlantic salmon, as well, on a number of fronts.
For example, publication of the Hites study in the Jan. 9, 2004, issue of the journal Science concluded that farm-raised salmon had far higher levels of such cancer-causing agents as PCBs and dioxin than wild salmon. The basis and methodology of that study was highly criticized by the Food and Drug Administration and other groups as an overestimation of consumer exposure to PCBs.

To add fuel to the anti-farmed salmon fire, a similar report on dioxin levels in farmed salmon was recently published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in May (see cover Newsline story).

“There certainly has been sort of an unrelenting level of attacks on our business,” says Tuttle, “but the good news is that the category is weathering the storm.

“The numbers say that consumption is increasing, prices for the short term are a few cents higher and fairly strong — in the high $2 range at wholesale — and it appears that the good news is outweighing the hysteria.”

Prices hit the doldrums in 2001, when 6- to 8-pound U.S. and Canadian farmed salmon were selling for about $1.38.

U.S. farmed-salmon sales were down 10 percent in 2004, compared to 2003, according to SOTA. But at the end of last year, they were up 2 percent in October, 8 percent in November and 13 percent in December, reports the group.

“We still face a lot of adversity, but things are getting better,” says Trent. “We have a lot of NGOs [non-governmental organization]” raising concerns. “What the NGOs do is leverage their weight with consumers to bring them misstatements and some falsehoods about farmed salmon in terms of nutritional value and food safety in the hopes that it will damage the industry.

Of course, it has nothing to do with the environmental issues, but they use it as a lever to get their story heard about environmental issues.”

The latest round of monitoring carried out by SOTA shows levels of PCBs in farmed salmon are about the same as those in wild Alaska chinook and sockeye salmon.

As the group noted in an Oct. 21, 2004, statement, “This should put to rest any fears that arose from the notorious Hites study … proclaiming farmed salmon to have higher levels of PCBs than their wild cousins.”

Fish escapes are another issue that some environmental activists have focused on. Sometimes sea cages fail and release salmon into adjacent waters. Although escaped salmon tend to remain near their farms, some can enter nearby rivers to spawn and possibly interbreed with wild salmon.

“[Environmentalists] don’t like Atlantic salmon to escape because they fear they will displace the native population,” notes Trent.

“That is an issue that to date has not become a reality. After 15 years of farming in British Columbia and salmon escaping, there are no reports of colonization.”

Moving forward

SOTA and other groups have kept the press better informed than in the past, especially on health-related issues. As a result, a number of news organizations have questioned NGOs’ statements about salmon.

In a FoxNews.com opinion piece titled “Eco-Extremism, Not Science, Behind Fishy Salmon Scare,” Steven Milloy, publisher of JunkScience.com, noted, “Junk science doesn’t get too much fishier than… scary headlines about farmed salmon being a cancer risk.”

Decrying the “gullible media alarmism run amok,” FoxNews noted, “There has never been a single health effect associated with consumption of farmed salmon, despite countless people eating millions of tons of it over the last 20 years.”

The industry is making good progress, as well, on the issue of feed, which impacts the bottom line. Salmon are carnivores, and in the wild must eat between 10 and 20 pounds of shrimp, krill and small fish to gain a pound of weight.

Farmed salmon are fed a diet consisting partly of fish meal and oil, and because they don’t burn up a lot of energy looking for their next meal like wild salmon, it takes a lot less feed to achieve a 1-pound gain — generally 3 to 4 pounds of fish-based feed.

“We’re working on alternatives to that because eventually we’d like to have another source of feed supply,” says Trent, “not just for environmental reasons, but for business reasons. No one wants to be tied to a single source. Over the years, we’ve gone from 90 percent fish meal and oil in the ration to 50 percent.”

He notes that the industry is experimenting with nutritious, vegetable-based feeds like canola and soybean oil and meal, which salmon find very palatable.

“Replacement takes time and a lot of experimentation, because it’s a complicated thing,” says Trent.

While the industry works to address environmental issues involving salmon aquaculture, farmed salmon’s popularity endures.

“[Farmed salmon is] an inexpensive seafood that’s one of the healthiest things you can eat, and people like the taste of it,” says Trent. “Ten years ago, salmon was a rich man’s food. It was all wild salmon, and wild salmon sells for $15 to $25 a pound. It’s as different from farmed salmon as veal is from pot roast.

“We’ve now got the attention of public-health people, dieticians, nutritionists and editors who support us,” Trent concludes. “A year and a half ago, many of them were just believing everything the NGOs said without asking anybody a question. We are turning a corner with a lot of food professionals who will help consumers see the truth and show it in the marketplace.

“Sales are strengthened, prices are strengthened, and farmed salmon, which was in the doldrums for two or three years in terms of market growth, is now back to nice, even and positive growth.”

Howard Riell is a freelance writer in Philadelphia  

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