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Salmon health risks debated in Norway

Dr Anne-Lise Birch Monsen and Professor Bjorn Bolann warning about farmed salmon - Photo Marcus Husby

A FIERCE row has broken out in Norway over the past week about the health risks of eating farmed salmon, with some supermarkets alleged to be threatening to ban products from their shelves.

The media furore began last week when two senior hospital clinicians told Norwegian tabloid VG that pregnant women, children and teenagers should limit their consumption of the fish.

Senior consultant Anne-Lise Birch Monsen and professor of medicine Bjorn Bolann of Haukeland University Hospital, Bergen, raised concerns about harmful chemicals that find their way into fish feed.

The Norwegian government responded by advising pregnant women and children to restrict their consumption to just two portions a week, advice that ties in with the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA).

Shortly afterwards Norway’s National Institute of Nutrition and Seafood Research (NIFES) waded in to say the government was wrong and there was no need to restrict intake of farmed salmon.

The institute’s director Ingvild Eide Graff said the previous comments were based on research published in 2004, when levels of dioxins and PCBs were three times as high as they are now.

The UK Food Standards Agency recommends that girls and women who are pregnant, breast feeding or might have a baby one day should only eat two 140 gramme portions of oily fish, including farmed salmon, per a week.

Men, boys and women who are not planning on having a baby should eat no more than four portions a week.

The reason for the recommended limits is that pollutants, including dioxins and PCBs, build up in fish used in fish feed. These then accumulate in the human body, which is unable to process them.

Pregnant mothers release the pollutants into their unborn child during pregnancy, and through their breast milk.

The chemicals can affect brain development and have been linked to autism, ADHD syndromes and low IQs.

However health experts point out the benefits of eating oily fish outweigh the risks due to the levels of Omega 3 fatty acids they contain, which are good for the heart and general health.

Shetland Aquaculture general manager David Sandison said that the level of toxins in fish feed was declining as more plant and vegetable oils are being used these days.

Yet one Norwegian commentator in the Norwegian daily Aftenposten points out that this reduces the levels of Omega 3 fatty acids in farmed fish.

The same newspaper also suggested hospital consultant Monsen who raised the concerns in the first place was motivated by her objection to a salmon farm outside her farm in Sveio.

Monsen herself claims the arrival of the salmon farm opened her eyes to the risks of eating farmed salmon, but her employers have distanced themselves from her claims.

Meanwhile Norwegian TV channel TV2 has reported that the country’s four major grocery chains have threatened to ban farmed salmon from their shelves because of their concerns about safety.

One food chain, ICA, has called for closed containment fish farms to prevent fish, disease, sea lice or chemicals leaking out into the environment.

The TV channel says the supermarkets have met with the industry and government officials to address their concerns.

Meanwhile the Norwegian salmon industry insists their products are “100% healthy”.

Salmon farming is worth £3 billion a year to Norway, three times as much as Scotland.

Shetland grows one third of Scotland’s salmon, making it the islands’ most valuable industry, almost all of which is Norwegian-owned.