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Farm salmon is now most contaminated food on shelf

By Rob Edwards, Environment Editor

Farmed salmon is the most contaminated food sold by British supermarkets, according to a new analysis by government advisors.

Among 100 different worst-case examples of fruit, vegetables, meat and other foodstuffs polluted by pesticides over the past five years, salmon comes out bottom. Every sample of farmed salmon in the batch tested by scientists was found to contain at least three toxic chemicals.

The revelation comes as the Scottish salmon-farming industry faces its biggest, and potentially most damaging, nationwide protest to date. Millions of salmon, fed and reared in cages at the 350 fish farms around Scotland's coastline, are sold throughout the UK. Virtually all fresh salmon sold in British supermarkets is farmed.

On Saturday, protesters are planning to picket supermarkets in up to 100 towns and cities across the country, urging shoppers not to buy farmed salmon. The protests will cover all the big-name supermarkets such as Tesco, Safeway, Sainsbury's, Asda and the Co-op.

The day of action is being led by Bruce Sandison, a well-known angler from Sutherland, who chairs the newly formed Salmon Farm Protest Group. Last week the group launched its website, encouraging people to join in the protest on October 26.

'I am greatly concerned by the failure of supermarkets to warn customers that some farm salmon might contain life-threatening levels of dioxins, DDT residues and other harmful substances ,' Sandison said.

'A decade of deceit, obfuscation and deception on the part of successive Scottish administrations has led to this public protest. The only way to save Scotland's remaining West Highlands and Islands wild salmon and sea-trout from extinction, caused by fish farm disease and pollution, is to explain to consumers why they shouldn't buy fake fish in their supermarkets.'

The new analysis of pesticide contamination was carried out by the government's Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment. The committee's 18 experts were asked to investigate the health implications of mixtures of different chemicals in food because of growing concern over possible 'cocktail effects'.

Their report, published last week, listed all the 'worst-case occurrences of pesticide residues' in all the food sampled by scientists between 1997 and 2001. Salmon was the only food in which every sample, from a batch tested in 1997, contained three pesticides: DDT, dieldrin and hexachlorobenzene.

The committee accepted that evidence was limited and that some chemical interactions may be unpredictable, but concluded that there was 'only a very small risk to human health of the 'cocktail effect' of pesticides'. But this has been attacked as complacent by environmentalists.

'Farmed salmon is the worst of the worst of all foodstuffs tested for DDT, dieldrin and other cancer-causing chemicals . It is a contaminated product' said Don Staniford, the author of a major critique of the salmon farming industry.

The salmon-farming industry argued that DDT and dieldrin, which have long been banned in most of the world, are pollutants present in most food. Staniford pointed out, however, that farmed salmon are much more contaminated than wild salmon.

The latest pesticide survey by government scientists lends some support to Staniford's view. Only 25 of 105 samples of imported, canned, wild salmon bought in Britain between April and December last year contained DDT. By contrast 59 out of 60 samples of fresh farmed salmon in 2001 contained the pesticide.

Staniford claimed that this is why supermarkets are reluctant to label salmon as farmed or wild. Farmed fish are 'cheap and nasty', he said. 'Since wild salmon contains far fewer toxins, consumers should 'go wild' if eating salmon.'

The 2001 survey also detected hexa chloro benzene in 23 samples of farmed salmon and chlordane in 11 samples, as well as pesticides in two samples of organic salmon. Contaminated salmon were sold at all the major supermarket chains, though most of the samples came from Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Safeway (see panel).

Pollutants concentrate in farmed salmon because they are fed fish pellets and oils that are themselves contaminated. The salmon-farming industry is experimenting with alternative foods, such as plant oils and proteins. 'However, it remains the case that the benefits of eating oily fish, such as salmon, for its Omega-3 essential fatty acids, far outweigh any risk and are valuable for a range of health conditions including protecting against heart disease,' said Dr John Webster, technical adviser with Scottish Quality Salmon.

The industry group has also furiously condemned next weekend's protest as 'yet another ill-informed attempt to damage the livelihoods of thousands of people in Scotland in order to pursue an out-dated vendetta.' It represents farmers producing 65% of Scotland's caged salmon.

In a statement, Scottish Quality Salmon claimed that every 'fact' in a leaflet produced by the Farm Salmon Protest Group was wrong. 'We are all in favour of reasoned debate and discussion, but this group has adopted such a malicious view of salmon farming with no regard for progress or achievements that it serves no useful purpose,' said SQS chief executive, Brian Simpson.

The reaction of one of the protesters' other targets, Tesco, was more relaxed. 'People are entitled to express their opinion,' said a spokesman for the supermarket chain.

'Our suppliers follow strict codes of practice to ensure that the food produced is safe and of high quality. It is also important that it is produced with minimum harm to the environment and with a high regard for animal welfare.'