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The FDA's Fishy Standards

January 24, 2004

A study that found high levels of PCBs and other toxins in farm-raised salmon adds to the rising debate about the fish, which are artificially colored and far higher in fat than the wild variety -- with healthful Omega 3 fatty acids making up a lower proportion of those fats. Industry practices also pollute the ocean where the fish are raised in netted pens. Of even bigger concern to consumers, though, the report published in Science magazine this month demonstrated the need for the Food and Drug Administration to update its standards for such toxins in fish and all foods.

Fed on pellets high in fish oils -- fat is where toxic residues tend to collect -- farmed salmon fatten up for market quickly. But if the salmon were caught by amateur anglers, they would fall under advisory guidelines set by the Environmental Protection Agency. With levels of dioxins, PCBs and pesticide residue at 10 times the level for wild salmon, the EPA would advise people not to eat that salmon more than once a month.

The FDA, however, is in charge of commercially produced food. Seeing its role as protecting the food industry as well as consumers, the FDA generally sets standards for toxins up to 40 times higher than the EPA does.

The FDA says: Eat all the farmed salmon you want. The EPA sticks to its guidelines. And the public is left clueless about whether it should still buy the fish, how much and how often.

The two agencies were at loggerheads for years over warnings to pregnant women about the mercury found in tuna. Finally, the FDA threw in the towel last year and agreed to align its standards with the EPA's. The result was a draft advisory drawn up in December warning that young children and pregnant and nursing women should sharply limit their tuna consumption.

The FDA response to the salmon study smells fishy. Yes, levels of PCBs and other toxins in farmed salmon should be lower, the agency said, but the current levels pose no risk to public health. If this is all perfectly safe, why lower anything?

EPA guidelines provide a benchmark that shows how outmoded the FDA's standards are for fish. But the public is left in the dark about all the foods for which the EPA doesn't offer guidance. A letter to the FDA last month urged the agency to overhaul its standards on contaminants, many of which date back a quarter of a century, when public eating patterns were different, toxins were harder to measure and less was known about their effects. Signed by dozens of scientists from such prestigious institutions as the Harvard School of Public Health, the letter's proposal merits attention.

The FDA should launch an expansive review that puts the priority on public health, not the food industry's profit margin.

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