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Point of View: PCB myth needs to be retired

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By John Connelly
March 01, 2010

While we all know Elvis is alive, Area 51 is home to little green men and the Loch Ness Monster is more than just a grainy photo, some people don't know that: eating Pop Rocks while drinking soda is a potentially deadly combination; if you swallow a piece of gum it takes seven years to digest; farmed salmon is an unhealthy PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl)-ridden fish that should be limited in consumption, if not avoided altogether.

One of these nutritional urban legends has seen a resurgence in popularity lately, and unlike the other two, the more people believe it, the more public health problems we can expect. It's not whether "Mikey" likes it, it's now what information source does he believe?

Whether it's small local paper s , misguided quasi-nutrition Web site s or even a large media outlet such 
as CNN.com, smearing farmed salmon appears to be a cottage industry that is rebuilding itself. In 
2004, an article published 
in Science magazine obscured perspective on the issue and gave indolent journalists and environmental activists an apparent license to claim farmed salmon is a health hazard rather than a health food.

The Science article reported average PCB concentrations in farmed salmon were at around 37 parts per billion (ppb), compared to 5 ppb in wild salmon. Those who chose to keep reading beyond that staggering statistic would have found that both tested well below the safe consumption level of 2,000 ppb set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Subsequently, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study found PCB levels almost exactly the opposite in farmed and wild - both still well below any level of concern.

Nonetheless, the plain ignorance on one hand and strategic perpetuation on the other continues to give life to this nutritional nonsense.

Independent, peer-reviewed research from Harvard University, published in the Journal of the American Medical Associatio n , reports that common foods like 
butter and even chicken contain far more PCBs than farmed salmon. The Harvard researchers also note that seafood, not just farmed salmon, makes up only 9 percent of the PCBs in the average American diet, while products like vegetables make up 20 percent.

Can you imagine a doctor or dietitian suggesting Americans limit their consumption of vegetables to once a week in order to avoid the 20 percent of PCBs that those products contribute to one's diet?

The FDA recently estimate d that if older men and women ate just 10 percent less fish, there would be an additional 4,000 deaths from heart disease and stroke each year. That is the kind of quantifiable effect that can result from rumor-mongering about farmed salmon - potentially a much more serious impact than just reducing seafood-industry sales.

Farmed salmon is a safe and healthful product, as is wild salmon. They are both delicious and, depending on preference, tend to attract different consumers. But whichever you prefer, these omega-3-fatty-acid-rich fish are on the front line when it comes to heart health.

Doctors and dietitians armed with facts and an industry prepared to rebut ridiculous assertions so often seen in the media can be the one-two punch to return this rhetoric to the file of retired urban legends. Maybe then the now-42-year-old Mikey can enjoy his soda, Pop Rocks and farmed salmon. But not necessarily all at the same time.


John Connelly is president of the National Fisheries Institute in MacLean, Va.


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