Recent studies surveying contaminant levels in farmed and
wild-caught salmon have shown that, on average, farmed salmon contain
substantially higher concentrations of a variety of persistent organic
contaminants such as PCBs, dioxins, and pesticides. These studies
indicate that wild salmon, being generally lower in toxic contaminants, is a
healthier choice for consumers. However, closer inspection reveals that
contaminant levels in individual fish can vary widely across wild and farmed
salmon of various species and from various geographic regions, so the issue is
not black and white.
Farmed Salmon — Country of Origin is Key
The majority of salmon consumed in the United States today
is Atlantic salmon raised on salmon farms. In the largest published survey of
farmed salmon contamination, Hites et al. reported on levels of 14 chlorinated
organic contaminants (mirex, DDT, endrin, dieldrin, cis-nonachlor, t-nonachlor,
chlordane, heptachlor epoxide, lindane, hexachlorobenzene, toxaphene, PCBs, and
dioxins) in approximately 700 farmed and wild salmon collected from around the
Fish were purchased at supermarkets in 16 large cities in North America and Europe,
and directly from salmon farms in eight major producing regions of the world,
including Scotland, Norway, Chile, Canada, Maine, and Washington State. This
study found that all salmon contain detectable levels of various chlorinated
contaminants. In particular, levels of certain contaminants were sufficiently
high to trigger stringent consumption advice for farmed salmon from all
locations, and for some species of wild Pacific salmon.
Among farmed salmon, fish produced in Chile and Washington State
were found to be least contaminated. Farmed salmon from Scotland and the Faroe
Islands had the highest contaminant levels. Canadian farmed salmon fell
somewhere in the middle. According to Salmon of the Americas, an organization of
salmon-producing companies, the vast majority of the salmon consumed
in the United States and Canada are farmed Atlantic salmon produced
in the Western
Chile leads in production,
followed by Canada and then the U.S.
Based on U.S. EPA cumulative risk assessment methods for
cancer risk from mixed exposures to PCBs, toxaphene, and dieldrin, Hites et al.
conclude that farmed salmon from Canada, Maine, and Norway should be eaten no more
than once every two months, while Chilean and Washington State farmed salmon
should be restricted to once a month. Farmed salmon from Scotland and the Faroe
Islands were so contaminated that they shouldn’t be eaten more than three
times per year. (Figure 1)
a follow-up study using the same salmon samples, Hites et al. reported on levels
of the brominated flame retardant chemicals known as PBDEs.
Similar to the first study, this survey found that, on average, farmed salmon
contained higher levels of PBDEs than wild-caught Pacific salmon. As with the
other contaminants, Scottish farmed salmon had the highest PBDE levels, while
farmed salmon from Chile and Washington State had the lowest levels. While
farmed salmon were generally higher in PBDEs than wild salmon, the researchers
noted with interest that the highest PBDE levels measured in this study were in
one sample of wild British Columbia Chinook. (Figure 2)
Wild Salmon — Fat, Contaminant Levels Vary Widely Across
While in general wild Pacific salmon are less contaminated
than farmed salmon, there is still wide variation in contaminant levels across
the wild species. This reflects both the diet of the salmon (larger fish
eat higher up on the food chain, which leads to more contamination) and the age
of the fish (older fish have had more years to accumulate toxicants). In
addition to living longer, sockeye and especially Chinook salmon contain more
fat than the smaller species. Because PCBs and other persistent organic
contaminants accumulate in fish oils, fattier salmon tend to be more
contaminated. At the same time, fattier salmon tend to be more prized for
color, flavor, and texture as well as concentration of nutrients such as omega-3
fatty acids. Therefore, the more expensive, ?gourmet? species of wild salmon
that are most often served in restaurants and sold as fresh steaks and fillets
will have the highest levels of contaminants. See Figure 3 below.
For example, Chinook (also known as king salmon) are most
often served in high-end restaurants, and are generally marketed in whole
steak, smoked and fillet forms. Hites et al. found that Chinook from Alaska are
the most contaminated of all wild salmon, and are no cleaner than Chilean or Washington
State farmed salmon. Coho (also known as silver salmon) and sockeye (also
known as red salmon) are less contaminated than Chinook. At the ?clean? end of
the wild salmon spectrum is chum salmon. Chum have a lower oil content than
other salmon species, and Hites et al. found them to be the least contaminated
wild salmon species. They are available as whole fish, steaks, fillets, smoked,
Finally, pink salmon are the most abundant of all wild salmon
species harvested in Alaska, and typically the least expensive. They are
relatively small fish compared with the other species, and have a low to
moderate oil content. The state of Alaska did not report on levels of
contaminants in pink Alaska salmon, but Hites et al. found this species to be among
the least contaminated of all wild salmon. According to the Alaska Seafood
Marketing Institute, pink salmon are marketed whole, as whole sides, smoked and
They are not often sold as fillets or steaks in supermarkets or restaurants.
Recently, the state of Alaska released the results of its
first significant effort to monitor levels of persistent organic contaminants
in Alaskan fish.
Previous state monitoring efforts had found that levels of mercury in Alaskan fish
and seafood were very low, but the state had conducted only limited sampling of
Alaskan fish for PCBs, dioxins, persistent pesticides, and other pollutants. For
its August 2004 report of contaminants in Alaskan fish, the state collected 600
samples of fish from marine water, rivers, and lakes throughout the state. However,
only a small subset was analyzed for organic contaminants. In all, 59 salmon
were tested, representing three of the five species of wild Pacific salmon ?
chum (18), Chinook or king (17), and sockeye (24). The results are consistent
with Hites et al. and other studies.
Canned salmon sold in the United
States is typically wild Alaskan salmon. Several salmon species are commonly canned, and can labels often denote the
species. According to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, the two most
commonly canned Alaska salmon species are sockeye and pink. Chum salmon may
also be purchased in cans. Canned pink and chum salmon are distinguished by
their rosy color, soft texture, and mild flavor. Sockeye is the ?premier?
canned salmon, with a deep red color, firmer texture, and higher price than the
other canned varieties. As noted above, pink and chum salmon appear to be
lowest in contaminants among wild species, while sockeye may contain higher
The Culprits — Pollution and Fish Farming Practices
Persistent organic pollutants like dioxins, PCBs, persistent
pesticides, and the brominated flame retardants knows as PBDEs are ubiquitous
in the global environment and in food supplies around the world. Many of these
chemicals are, or once were, produced and used widely in various countries, and
their extreme persistence, coupled with their ability to travel long distances
on air and water currents and to bioaccumulate in food chains, means that they
are widely dispersed in the global environment and food chains.
Wildlife and seafood from the cold waters of Alaska and
other polar regions are particularly at risk of contamination from these
pollutants because the pollutants tend to migrate around the globe and
eventually settle and persist in cold climates.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that even in Arctic Alaska,
POPs have been found in the air, water, soil, plants, fish, and other wildlife.
Thus persistent pesticides from farms in Asia as well as industries in North
America may find their way to Alaskan waters and then into the local food
chain, including wild Alaska salmon.
However, it is feeding practices in fish farms around the
world that account for the elevated contaminant levels in farmed salmon. In the
wild, fish such as salmon can only feed upon fish and other creatures that are
smaller — and therefore typically less contaminated — than they are. But salmon
raised on farms are fed a diet that may consist of fish meal and oil derived
from larger and more contaminated fish. Thus farmed-raised salmon are often
eating above themselves on the food chain, a perverse situation that
does not occur in the wild.
At present, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does
not regulate the contaminant levels in feed produced for farm-raised salmon,
nor does FDA monitor and regulate contaminant levels in farmed salmon imported
into the United States. Until salmon farmers either voluntarily change their
practices or are required to do so by strict FDA regulations, farmed salmon
sold in the United States will likely continue to contain significantly
elevated levels of toxic contaminants.
Consumers? Right to Know
Even without FDA action to reduce contaminant levels in farmed salmon,
consumers can make informed choices to protect themselves with access to better
information. Consumers have a right to — and should demand — easy-to-read
consumer labeling and signage about salmon. Until now, most supermarkets and
restaurants — where most consumers buy fish — have provided little or no
information to consumers about the fish they sell, whether it is farmed or
wild-caught, country of origin, etc. As the issue of mercury contamination of
tuna and other fish has gained public attention, some states and localities
have begun passing laws requiring stores and restaurants to post warnings about
high mercury fish at the point of purchase. But consumers have been largely in
the dark about levels of other toxic contaminants in store-bought salmon.
As of September 30, 2004, Country of Origin Labeling is now required for
fish and shellfish under the 2002 Farm bill. This newly implemented law requires
salmon to be labeled by country of origin and as either ?farmed? or ?wild.? In
addition, the FDA now requires all farmed salmon products to be identified as
containing artificial colorants. (These synthetic dyes are fed to farmed salmon
to mask the natural gray color of their flesh, in contrast with the vivid
pink-orange color that wild salmon derive from their natural diet of krill and
other sea creatures.)
Improved labeling is an important step in helping inform consumers. Current
law could be strengthened to require product labels and store signs that
identify (1) genetically engineered ingredients or feed, (3) additives, (4)
sustainability and/or organic certification, (5) nutritional value and (6) all
major health-related issues such as antibiotic and pesticide usage, or other
toxic contamination. This will enable consumers to make better informed, safe
and more sustainable decisions in their selection of salmon and other seafood.
Although wild Pacific salmon are generally lower in toxic
contaminants than their farm-raised Atlantic cousins, it is clear that
contaminant levels in different species and individual fish can vary widely.
More aggressive regulation of toxic pollutants in the environment and in fish
feed is needed to reduce the levels of contaminants in both wild and farmed
fish. In the meantime, consumers must seek out information about fish
contaminants in order to make safe, healthy dietary choices for themselves and
More information, including clinical and consumer fish
consumption recommendations from Physicians for Social Responsibility and the
Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, and a fact sheet on the
health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids in fish such as salmon are available at www.mercuryaction.org/fish.
Author: Karen L. Perry, MPA, Deputy Director, Environment and Health Program, Physicians for Social Responsibility
PSR would like to thank Katherine M. Shea, MD, MPH and David
O. Carpenter, MD for reviewing this fact sheet?s clarity and scientific and
Hites et al. Global assessment of organic contaminants in farmed salmon. Science.
2004 Jan 9;303(5655):226-9.
2 Salmon of the Americas. Where farmed salmon
are raised and a little bit about their wild cousins. http://www.salmonoftheamericas.com/production.html.
Hites et al. Global assessment of polybrominated diphenyl ethers in farmed and
wild salmon. Environ Sci & Technol. 2004;38(19):4945-9.
U.S. Department of Agriculture. Report On Pouched And Canned Salmon. Prepared
for Submission to Congress by the Agricultural Marketing Service. May 2003.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Persistent Organic Pollutants, a Global
Issue, a Global Response. Office of International Affairs. April 2002. http://www.epa.gov/international/toxics/brochure.html.