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International News, February 2006

Norwegian farmed salmon still banned

The Russian ban on fresh Norwegian farmed salmon, which began on 1st January 2006, is still in place. According to Reuters (17th January): “A scientist working for Norway's National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research (NIFES) has broken ranks and says that, given the amount of research, there is no way Norway can be so sure its salmon is completely safe. “I think (Norway’s stance) is probably ridiculous given the amount of tracking and samples we have,” NIFES researcher Dr Claudette Bethune told Reuters. She pointed to a batch of salmon feed contaminated with excessive levels of cadmium found in Norway in April last year”.

Dr Bethune was backed up by Bjørnar Jacobsen, elected representative for over 500 of the Norwegian Food Safety Authority’s veterinarians. He told Dagbladet (19th January) that the Norwegian Food Safety Agency (Mattilsynet) is trying to cover up findings related to the excessive amount of cadmium in farm raised salmon. Jacobsen believes the Office of Food Safety has not examined the connection between cadmium contaminated feed and the toxins found in salmon exported to Russia. He believes the Office of Food Safety is trying to protect the fish farming industry, and that there is a conflict of interest.

Nitrites found in Norwegian farmed salmon

As if Norway’s problems with cadmium contamination of farmed salmon were not enough, it was revealed in January (16th) that nitrites were being illegally added to Norwegian farmed salmon. “That some salmon smokers are caught using nitrite is one of the worst blows for the reputation of Norwegian food,” said Norwegian Consumer Council director Erik Lund-Isaksen to specialist newspaper Fiskaren. “This is not a scratch, it is a major dent. The nitrite affair is the worst example in terms of negative impact on the reputation of Norwegian food”.

According to Aftenposten (18th January): “Earlier this week Lund-Isaksen asked the Norwegian Food Safety Authority to file criminal charges against the eight fish producers, and the Council has no doubts that this is an instance of conscious use of forbidden substances. Nitrites stabilize food color and influence taste, but according to the FSA the central aim of using nitrite is to hinder or stop the growth of unwanted micro-organisms. Nitrites are not considered a direct problem, but rather that they react with amines in foodstuffs and transform into carcinogenic nitrosamines”.

The ‘Wal-Mart Effect’ on cheap Chilean farmed salmon

Wal-Mart, the largest supermarket chain in the world, is under fire for sourcing cheap farmed salmon from Chile. “If Wal-Mart charges $5 per pound for salmon, then shoppers wonder why a restaurant charges $15,” writes Charles Fishman in a new book called ‘The Wal-Mart effect. “We expect salmon to cost only $5. Or a microwave to cost only $39. The Wal-Mart effect first changes our expectations, then changes the quality of merchandise, which is cheap, because it isn't always well- or ethically made”.

“Take salmon,” writes Orlando Sentinel columnist Kathleen Parker (28th January). “Wal-Mart, which buys all its salmon from Chile, sells more than anyone else in the country and undersells all other retailers by at least $2 per pound. That’s a lot of market power, which prompts Fishman to ask: “Does it matter that salmon for $4.84 a pound leaves a layer of toxic sludge on the ocean bottoms of the Pacific fjords of southern Chile?”

“Only if consumers say it does, says Fishman. Wal-Mart listens to ‘voters’. If shoppers say they won't buy salmon until Wal-Mart insists on higher standards from suppliers, then Wal-Mart will make those demands. Incentive is the engine that drives the company that promises low prices — ‘always’. Fishman also raises questions about worker wages, health insurance and working conditions in other countries where Wal-Mart suppliers treat human workers little better than Chile treats fish”.

Speaking to Salon (23rd January), Rodrigo Pizzaro of Chilean NGO Terram thinks if American consumers understand what’s required to deliver salmon at $4.84 a pound, they won’t think the price is worth the cost. “I wouldn’t think American parents would want to feed themselves or their children with something being produced by a worker who is miserable, and who works in terrible conditions,” says Pizarro. “And I don't think Wal-Mart should tolerate that”.

$29,000 in fines for labour violations in Chile

Ecoceanos News (8th February) reported that four salmon farming companies - Marine Harvest (Nutreco), Los Fiordos, Cultivos Marinos and Aqua Chile - were sanctioned for not meeting labour laws in Puerto Cisnes in the XI region. The companies were fined for not complying with hygiene and security, and also working day regulations. The fines were for a total of US $29,393. The head of the Labour Agency Manuel Muñoz said: “In statistical terms, there is 50% infractionality in this sector”.

Labour problems are nothing new in Chile. In December (15th), Ecoceanos News reported that: “The thirteen deaths so far this year in the salmon industry based in Chile, have occurred in the context of permanent anti-union practices and labor law violations by the salmon industry employers”. Marine Harvest were once again involved: “The Labor Inspectorate of the Los Lagos District fined and suspended work in one of the sections of the plant that Nutreco/Marine Harvest has in the Chamiza zone in Puerto Montt, for its responsibility in the death of a salmon worker”.

Mega merger for Marine Harvest, Pan Fish and Fjord Seafood?

“Unconfirmed reports say that the two listed companies Pan Fish and Fjord Seafood are negotiating a merger with Marine Harvest,” business newspaper Finansavisen reported (2nd February). The man behind the merger, according to Finansavisen, is rumoured to be John Fredriksen - Finansavisen believes the Norwegian billionaire might be in the middle of creating the world’s largest fish farm company.

The newspaper’s sources claim that the three companies had merger talks earlier in the week. A merged company would be by far the largest Atlantic salmon farming company with a yearly production of 275,000 tons. If merged, the three companies would have sales totaling almost 35 percent of the world market for Atlantic salmon.

Pan Fish Boss Atle Eide was less than direct when questioned by Aftenposten. “In this business there are so many rumors, you shouldn’t get worked up about most of them. I think that exciting things can happen in fish farming in the future,” Eide told Aftenposten, and added that while it was difficult to comment, he did not see the Finansavisen solution as the most likely.

NY Times on the pitfalls of farmed salmon

Marian Burros tackled the subject of “Advisories on Fish and the Pitfalls of Good Intent” in an article published in the New York Times (15th February). “Concerns about farmed salmon are more recent, but scientists who have studied the pollutants they contain strongly suggest that the same vulnerable population, which includes pregnant women, should choose fresh, frozen or canned wild salmon, which is comparatively uncontaminated with PCBs and dioxin,” she wrote.

Some scientists take issue with this, however. Walter Willett, Professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, criticized a 2004 study published in Science which reported that farmed salmon had high levels of PCBs and dioxin. “That publication was particularly troublesome, perhaps even irresponsible,” he wrote, “because the implied health consequences were based on hypothetical calculations and very small lifetime risks”.

Professor Willett has received intense criticism. A letter to be published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine from the authors of the Science study calls his comments defamatory, inaccurate and scurrilous. Marion Nestle, Professor of nutrition at New York University, said his statement was “astonishing”.

“The public is really not faced with a Hobson’s choice,” concluded Marian Burros. “It can always get plenty of omega-3s from canned wild salmon, cheap and available year-round and low in contaminants”.