In part 3 of this series, Debunking Superfoods, the topic is an animal that has had much success in the realm of confusing others: salmon. Many people have a love/hate relationship with this fish, and for good reason. There are many benefits to eating salmon which cannot be disputed. However, the environment, human interaction, and mislabeling can add more risks than most people realize.
Salmon can live in both freshwater and saltwater, with groups (“runs”) being found in Atlantic and Pacific oceans as well as rivers and lakes. Common food preparations for salmon are poaching, broiling, and even serving raw as sushi or sashimi. Salmon is rich in Vitamin D, A, B, and is a great source of calcium, phosphorous, iron, and selenium. Its biggest claim to fame, though, is its abundance in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3’s have been marketed to lower risk for heart disease, cholesterol, and even cancer. Claims in the market have even stated it can assist in the prevention of autism and pre-term births while boosting brain function and mental health benefits. Unfortunately, science has debunked many of these claims, and a constant diet of salmon may be detrimental to consumers’ health.
One danger already known about salmon is the risk of heightened levels of methylmercury. Mercury itself has a shady past in use as medicine and in cosmetics, so when we hear about it in food, alarm bells go off. Mercury exists naturally in rocks, soil, and volcano eruptions. Mining coal and gold has contributed to the rising levels of mercury in the air. Because of the airborne concentrations, it inevitably finds its way into our waterways, then into the plants in those waters, then on up the sea life food chain. Salmon falls into the larger fish category. Per the FDA, “…the four types of commercial fish with the highest levels of methylmercury: Tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.” Much of our common seafood diet, including salmon, contains lower amounts of mercury, at an amount that is considered acceptable for eating.
Other not-so-common-knowledge dangers pose an even bigger threat to those consuming salmon, as well as the environment and the salmon population, in general. Pesticides used on plant life can seep into soil and, just like mercury, and can get into the water. Global warming is also a threatening entity. According to Science Magazine, “Warm winter temperatures in the mountains of the western United States this past winter sharply reduced the region’s snowpack, which normally reaches its high point at this time each year. That snow typically serves as a vital water storage reservoir that is slowly released as the snow melts over the dry summer months.” Salmon looks to the stability of water climates like we look to our air or land. Warming waters can spell death for many populations of salmon, especially populations that may already be endangered. The deaths of numerous sea life have been seen recently, and the damage within that event is increased disease in fish populations and potential health risks for those that eat them.
Recalls have occurred multiple times due to contamination of disease, specifically Listeria. “Listeria monocytogenes can cause listeriosis, with high fever, severe headache, neck stiffness, and nausea as its primary symptoms. In rare cases, listeriosis is fatal; it can also cause miscarriages and stillbirths,” according to the FDA.
The modern response to disease in farmed animals has typically been two methods: (1) genetic modification to combat the vulnerabilities to the disease, and (2) antibiotics. In December 2017, the FDA put its final seal of approval on a new genetically engineered Atlantic salmon, AquAdvantage by AquaBounty Technologies. They even took it a step further to state that “…the nutritional profile of AquAdvantage Salmon is comparable to that of non-GE farm-raised Atlantic salmon.” The lasting effects are not known as it has just been accepted a few months ago, but petitions arose in 2011 from Earth Justice and 2015 by Food and Water Watch. Food and Water Watch’s claim was focused on the AquAdvantage Salmon compounds being a food additive, proposing there are no safe additives. While I cannot fully agree with their claim (and neither did the FDA), the Earth Justice petition is more sound, in my opinion. They wrote a formal request to remove the application for the genetically engineered salmon until the FDA released a full environmental impact statement (EIS), and to provide more environmental protections through legislation guidelines in the National Environmental Protection Act. However, the FDA stated that through the NEPA, there was no requirement of an EIS and that they found the environmental impact wouldn’t be significant.
There have been violations found by the FDA concerning salmon processing and distribution, but it was mostly within the legal red tape. What worries me still is that the secondary disease response usually taken by the food industry is antibiotics. We’ve all heard the horror stories of antibiotics used in farm animals like chickens, pigs, and cows, changing their bodies and making them sick. In the case of salmon, the truth isn’t far off. According to a feature article by the World Health Organization (WHO), antibiotic use in farming and human medical treatment “is compromising our ability to treat infectious diseases and undermining many advances in medicine”. Norway, a country President Trump seems to hold in high esteem, seems to be another step ahead of us in this regard. They made the switch from antibiotics to vaccination in 1994. With salmon being one of their primary exports, they’re able to stem the rise of this major problem and show an example of what fish farmers and livestock farmers can do to make things right for their consumers.
I always try to include a silver lining to each of my articles in this series and, luckily, there are a few for salmon. There are strides in safe fish farming practices that may lessen the ecological and economic burden of raising healthy salmon. Also, the FDA has revised their ruling on salmon, stating it is OK for pregnant women and children to eat certain amounts. Overall, though, the best type of salmon seems to be wild-caught over farmed. Cornel University analyzed that if more farmers utilized tactics like vaccination, there would probably be better health news.
It’s my opinion that the popularity of salmon is making things difficult to create healthier environments for them. If there was more focus on the health in the production of salmon by corporate entities than in the quantity, sales, and revenue, I am confident we would have many more advancements to keep the animals, and the products created with them, healthy.
Stay well, and see you next week for another debunking!
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