A recent US scientific study warned of the dangers of eating too much farmed salmon. In the row that followed, the salmon industry fought to defend its product and food watchdogs emphasised the health benefits of oily fish in an effort to maintain consumer confidence. Jonathan Tisdall examines the events and conspiracy theories that unfolded and looks at the short- and long-term impacts of the health scare.

The US research findings published in the journal Science claiming health dangers from farmed salmon intake appeared to make little impact on European markets, producers or consumers after an initial uproar. The study warned that farmed salmon consumption should be limited to one portion per month because it contains higher carcinogen levels than wild salmon. Authorities issued calming reports to consumers, and scientists raised serious questions about the study.

The US research team recommended no more than one serving of around 250 grams of farmed salmon per month after measuring samples available from markets in Boston, Edinburgh, Frankfurt, London, Oslo, Paris, San Francisco and Toronto.

The Scottish salmon industry branded the study "a piece of hysteria" and "deliberately misleading" while in Norway, the world's major producer of salmon, the National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research (NIFES) in Bergen quickly rejected the claim that farmed salmon was dangerous to eat.

"The figures the US researchers present are old news. We know them well from before. But the levels are well within the limits set by the EU and WHO for food safety," Anne-Katrine Haldorsen, head researcher at NIFES, told Norwegian news agency NTB.

According to Haldorsen, the dioxin levels in Norwegian wild salmon are down 50% since 1998 and are a quarter of the allowed limit, while farmed salmon is at the level of herring or mackerel. NIFES criticised the presentation of the figures, and said the risk assessment had been highly exaggerated.

Europe agrees

British researchers agreed and Britain's Food Standards Agency (FSA) was quick to tell consumers to keep eating farmed Scottish salmon, which tested highest in contamination but which also remained within international safety limits. FSA chairman Sir John Krebs chose to stress the known health benefits of oily fish - emphasising high levels of Omega 3 oils - and recommended eating at least two portions a week, a marked contrast to the US study conclusion.

The European Union Commission also dampened any fears, Consumer Protection Commission spokeswoman Beate Gminder noting that "the American research did not find dioxin levels above the EU's maximum threshold". Later this year the Commission will propose to regulate the limits of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), another group of toxins, currently not included in EU food safety regulations.

Dioxins and PCBs include chemicals that may have toxic effects even at low levels as they accumulate in the body over time.

Spain's Food Standards Agency was also quick to urge citizens not to react to the US study and also emphasized emphasised the positive effect of eating fish, but called for stricter EU controls to ensure that "countries such as Norway" obeyed health regulations, a proviso that would have implications later.

Initial market reaction

Norway's core seafood industry reached record volume export levels in 2003, though total earnings declined. Salmon makes up roughly a third of seafood exports and also enjoyed record sales of 485,000 tons last year.

The backlash from the report caused immediate industry concern, with Japanese importers and supermarket chains reportedly putting their orders for Norwegian farmed salmon on hold when the news broke.

But a few days later Norway's Seafood Export Council (EFF) could report that they had not received a single cancellation, Japanese orders were going ahead, global turnover was normal and fishery share prices recovered.

Market impact

Statistics Norway and the EFF announced that exports of fresh salmon hit 7,706 tons in the second week of January, up more than 2,000 tons compared to the same period in 2003.

Norway's National Fishery and Aquaculture Association, FHL, reported on 16 January that their official price for salmon rose in week two and had been higher than expected. The FHL prognosis was for the trend to continue.

Scotland could report similar statistics, with the Herald and Times citing no noticeable effect on sales in shops, and even increased demand at Sainsbury's. Scottish organic salmon, predictably, benefited, with orders jumping at least 10% after the publication of the US report.

But as a new week dawned, Norway's fisheries emissary to Spain, Arne Sørvig, admitted to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that a crisis was brewing, at least there. Salmon sales declined drastically, and purchasers for Spanish chains predicted they would only be buying in at about a quarter of customary levels.

"The situation is dramatic. Sales, especially to our big clients like the major supermarkets, are around 20-40% of what is normal," Sørvig told NRK, and predicted that it could take up to two months for the scare to blow over here.

Conspiracy theory

Ole-Eirik Lerøy, CEO of Lerøy Seafood Group in Bergen, calls the fight to win public taste an international battle, and believes the bottom line is a war between fish and meat.

The question Lerøy's assessment begged was being aired in no uncertain terms in the salmon industry - was the timing of the report linked to US meat market fears after the high-profile BSE case?

"We have asked NIFES to contact the researchers responsible for the US study," says EFF information chief Åshild Nakken, noting that the study was remarkable for a radical new assessment of risk despite figures that tally with those already known.

Conspiracy theorists should note that the result was not particularly effective for the meat industry, for several reasons. The US Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) did mention that the study was odd since the targets - PCBs and dioxins - were rarely checked by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), but the IATP concluded that more comprehensive testing to ensure safe fish consumption was the proper reaction. The IATP also urged the FDA to make clear distinctions between wild and farmed fish when issuing consumer advice.

William T. Hogarth, assistant administrator for fisheries at the National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA Fisheries) responded with an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail stressing the importance of aquaculture and the vital role fish farming will play in the future, and discussed America's need to catch up in this sector.

The Washington Times ran an editorial citing and supporting the FDA's own verdict: "Our advice to consumers is not to alter their consumption of farmed or wild salmon."

With reactions like these from the study's country of origin, it is hardly unusual that the panic seemed to be short-lived and the impact on markets negligible. The known health benefits of eating fish and the importance of the aquaculture industry emerged as major issues, and the scare looked set to vanish in the safety of numbers.

Norwegian reactions

Surprisingly, one of the strongest supporting voices for the controversial study came from the Norwegian Association for Environmental Protection, though its protest was drowned out in the backlash to the report. Association leader Kurt Oddekalv blasted Norway's fish farming industry and called for tighter limits and controls.

"If you had transferred the fish farming industry's attitudes to dairy farms we would have cows without hooves and tails," Oddekalv told newspaper Finnmark Dagblad, calling for scientific monitoring of the industry and higher standards.

The normally belligerent environmental foundation Bellona did not agree, falling in with the statistical argument that contaminant levels were well below danger limits.

Meanwhile, Norwegian producers have grown accustomed to tough tactics and punitive duties and realise that even a possibly unnecessary scare has deeper relevance to the industry.

"We must largely sell our fish in markets that have an abundance of most goods and this becomes a battle for the public's favour. Then food safety becomes significant and it is important for Norwegian producers and exporters to be conscious of this. No one should be more concerned than we are that the fish we export is healthy and safe," Lerøy says.