Salmon Says, an Anti-Cancer Investigation: Part 4. How Healthy is Farmed Atlantic? Organic?

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Now let’s turn this anti-cancer investigation to farmed Atlantic salmon and the countries that produce it: Norway, the largest producer, Scotland, Ireland and other European countries, Chile, Canada and to a smaller degree, the US. All of these countries are producing farmed Atlantic salmon, and unlike wild Pacific salmon, this choice is available year round.

How healthy—or not—is your farmed Atlantic salmon?  Remember we’re talking human health impact here. Its environmental impact gets plenty of attention elsewhere.        


Have you seen those ads promising that your farmed salmon is from pristine waters? Turns out that while the surrounding waters are relevant—farms need to be located in areas where tides move–they’re not the sole factor. What’s really important with farmed salmon is the waters their FEED has been swimming in. The three big feed manufacturers have plants throughout the world and source many of their ingredients locally. Let’s start by touring those aquacultural zones:     

Europe: Norway, the world’s largest producer,Scotland, Ireland, Denmark, Iceland –

Still think all far northerly waters are unspoiled? Chernobyl deposited its fair share of radiation in the European Arctic, and like Alaska, some of these countries  are susceptible to industrial chemicals moving northwards.  But the big problem in this part of the world is that England has been industrialized for so long.  

England? It doesn’t farm salmon.  

As you know from the previous posts, in 2004, scientists released a shocking study:  Farmed salmon from Europe, including organic farmed salmon from Scotland, harbored large amounts of industrial pollutants (called persistent organic pollutants or POPs, which concentrate in fat.) The results sparked other scientists to have another look. Some challenged its reasoning, saying its warnings were based on outdated guidelines that set the bar for contaminants unreasonably high. Land animals, many claimed justifiably, also contain PCBs and often at higher levels. 

Nevertheless, the study forced people to take a keener look out to sea.  The root of the problem turned out to be the North Sea, where fish feed manufacturers were sourcing their feed. (The dirty Baltic was also a source.)

 Located off the UK’s east coast, the North Sea flows northwards— up the coast of Norway, then eventually circling through Arctic waters and back towards Greenland, Iceland and Scotland. And since the birth of industrialization, the North Sea has been a trash bin for industry’s wastes.

Enter the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in northern England, which was dumping its radioactive wastes into the Irish Sea, whose waters flow into the North one—and the Cap de la Hague plant in northern France, whose waters also flow there. Enter outrage. Even Norway started complaining – realizing that its important fishing industry was under threat.

Fortunately, the situation today has improved.  Regulations control the nuclear dumping, and most countries throughout the world have signed the Stockholm Convention, which continues to study and ban various industrial pollutants, although many will linger in the environment for a long while. (The US hasn’t signed on, but it has banned PCBs and some other chemicals.)

In addition, the EU has put strict limits on the acceptable amount of POPs in farmed fish. And non EU Norway is obliging, surely because it wants you to buy its fish. 

Even before that report came out, fish feed manufacturers had started work on changing their formulas. Today in Europe, they’re sourcing the marine portions of their feed from cleaner waters, including those off Norway, Iceland and Shetland. “The waters there are as clean as it gets,” says University of Idaho fish scientist Dr. Ronald Hardy.  They’re still scouting parts of the North Sea and Baltic , but they have to adhere to those EU limits and in some cases, decontaminate the sources  to use them in feed. 

Plus, fish feed manufacturers are substituting land-based materials in their feeds, including plants and, in Chile and North America, animal parts from poultry and sometimes pigs.  Farmed salmon from Europe, however, including all organic Atlantic salmon, and Whole Foods’ “responsibly-farmed” salmon (sold as “natural farm-raised salmon from Iceland”) do not use animals.  

Chile–second largest producer

Waters off the coasts of Chile and Peru are among the world’s cleanest, says Hardy, due to a historical lack of industry and strong ocean currents.  Peruvian anchovies, sardines and jack mackerel, all sourced locally, are a major source of fish feed here. But they’re expensive, and Chilean farmers use lots of poultry and soy.  

British Columbia–

The Pacific here is quite clean although not as much so as off Peru and Chile. Sources in feed include local fish supplemented by oils from clean South American fish and cleaned (decontaminated) Gulf of Mexico menhaden. They also use lots of land-based substitutes, including canola oil (Canada has a lot of it) and animal byproducts. 

Canadian and US East Coast– 

The Atlantic is not as clean as the Pacific  but not as dirty as the European waters we’ve discussed.  Major sources of feed: Local menhaden plus South American oils and plant and animal substitutes.


What are the health consequences of using these land-based components—both plants and animals– in fish feed? For one, the feeds are likely to have fewer POPs, although a recent study from Norway found high levels of a different class of chemicals traceable to pesticides in plants.

That’s cause for pause.

Might the new feeds lead to omega 6 overload? Consider this:

Marine life is the sole source of the healthy long chain omega 3 fatty acids (DHA and EPA) that get converted to anti-inflammatory chemicals in our bodies. The omega 3s from plants (ALA) don’t provide the same benefits.  Indeed, feed manufacturers know this and strive for high levels of the marine-based 3s by using fish oils rich in them.

On the other hand, the plants and animals they use in feeds, to varying degrees, increase omega 6 fatty acids, which are overabundant in our diets and can get converted to inflammatory compounds. That means, in absolute numbers, farmed Atlantic salmon from countries that rely on these land substitutes would be high in both omega 3s and omega 6s—much higher in fact than wild Pacific salmon.  But the ratio–the amount of 3s in relation to 6s– in wild fish is much more favorable than in the farmed.   

So what’s more important? The total amount of 3s and 6s or the ratio of 3s to 6s?  According to some experts (including Dr. Ray Rice, an internationally known authority on essential fatty acids ), the 3s and 6s compete for conversion in our bodies, and when we have too many 6s, the 3s lose out.  This science, however, is not definitive.     


Let’s set this straight: Organics did not evolve in order to protect your health. They evolved primarily to protect the environment—yes, good for all of us, but not our focus here. So does an organic label mean the salmon is healthier to eat? As they say on Facebook, it’s complicated.    

Today, organic farmed Atlantic salmon only comes from Europe.  Although the US and Canada are both in the process of drafting standards, no other country producing farmed Atlantic salmon regulates organics. (There are some niche producers raising Chinook and coho salmon, two Pacific species, and some call their product “organic,” but you have to ask them what that word means. The US and Canada do not stand behind the label.)   

To complicate matters, there are several organizations in Europe, including the EU, that certify organics, each with its own set of standards. And nobody can tell which group’s standards are strictest.

Plus, the Whole Foods chain has its own set of standards for premium salmon—They call it “responsibly-farmed salmon” or “natural farm-raised salmon from Iceland”–and these are often more rigorous than some organic ones.


Let’s look at the chemicals used in all salmon aquaculture to understand the major differences between organic and conventionally farmed salmon.

In 2008, the Salmon Aquaculture Dialogue (SAD), an international group of organizations promoting environmentally and socially responsible aquaculture, published a review of those chemicals, focusing on their environmental effects. (Nobody has done a similarly extensive review of their impacts on human health.)   

Here’s a rundown of the chemicals and what that SAD report and others have to say:

  • Growth hormones:  Well, actually, forget that one. Apparently, they’re not used in salmon aquaculture.

  • Antibiotics:  Regulated by organics and conventional to varying degrees.  Norway, the world’s largest producer of farmed salmon, has virtually eliminated them by improving diets and management practices and  turning to vaccines instead, and the developed countries for the most part control their use. The report, however, criticizes Canada and Chile for their historical overuse of antibiotics, but notes that BC’s use is declining.                                   Widespread  use of large quantities of antibiotics in aquaculture … has the potential to be detrimental… to human health,” says the report. The biggest human threat, says Dr. Felipe Cabello, author of the antibiotics section, is to our public—not our individual health.  Overuse of antibiotics in farming of all types creates disease resistance, even in humans. How are eastern Canada and Chile doing in their antibiotic usage these days? The authors note that they haven’t been releasing data so it’s impossible to tell. 
  • Vaccines:  The research has shown that they do have some side effects in salmon—causing scar tissue to grow together in the abdomen. “I cannot imagine any side effects for humans,” says a Norweigan specialist.  

  • Chemicals to clean the nets:  These are called anti-foulants and often contain copper, which settles in sediments beneath the nets and is toxic to much of the small marine life there.  Organics thus generally prohibit copper. Copper’s not a big threat to human health, says Dr. Judith Weis, who authored that section of the SAD study. (Some people have suggested, however, that copper-based anti-foulants–and copper added to salmon feed– could increase the copper levels in farmed salmon, and  the University of Michigan’s Dr. George Brewer has found  that copper promotes angiogenesis, the process by which cancer cells grow blood vessels and then spread. This science is still young.)   
  •  Anesthetics : They’re used infrequently and in low doses, says the report.

But the authors do point to two other classes of chemicals they’re concerned about:   drugs to kill parasites and disinfectants to limit transfer of disease.

  • Parasiticides ( to kill parasites):  Sea lice infestations are a big problem for salmon farmers, requiring aggressive treatment with chemicals—both in the feeds and in salmon baths. Release of these chemicals into the aquatic environment  “has been identified as a major environmental concern,” the report says.  “ Parasiticides are used in all jurisdictions and the quantity of these compounds being applied is considerable.  …No studies (lab or field) have adequately addressed cumulative effects” of these chemicals on the marine environment, the report concludes.  And where are the studies on their human health impact?

  • Disinfectants:  These are used on nets, boats, boots, clothing, containers, etc. and “ there appear to be no regulations” regarding their use, the SAD report says. Disinfectants often contain compounds considered to be endocrine disruptors (meaning they mimic estrogen in the body and thus may promote the growth of estrogen dependent cancers) and are known to affect salmon and other marine organisms. Malachite green, which was used in the past to combat fungi, has been banned in most places because it was suspected of causing gene damage and cancer. However  “…several reports identify instances of misuse in aquaculture in the US and internationally.”         

All of the above chemicals are used in salmon farming; organics regulate some of them more stringently than conventional aquaculture, but organics are not all the same.Then there are certain chemicals that all organics do ban:

  • Colorants: To turn the white farmed salmon pink (like its wild counterparts),  conventional producers use synthetic chemicals. Organics allow only non-synthetic ones.

  • Antioxidants: These stabilize the ingredients in the feed and keep the fats from turning rancid. Organics allow only natural ones. According to a Norwegian professor and fish expert, these chemicals aren’t really a problem in humans. It’s the industrial pollutants we’ve talked about that are the biggest threat to human health, he says. 


How does organic feed differ from conventional?

Organic Atlantic salmon standards require that the plants used in the feed be organic, free from pesticides and GMO ingredients, and extracted from plants without using chemical solvents.  Land animals are prohibited. So far, so good.  

In addition, the fish component of organic feed is different. 

From the outset, one of the biggest concerns of the organic aquaculture movement has been that feed makers need huge supplies of smaller fish to make feed for the larger ones.  Thus, all organics require that the fish portion of the feed come from byproducts or trimmings of fish destined for human consumption and/or sustainable species.

That means organs, frames, heads, eyes (yes, fish eyes are high in omega 3s) of herring or mackerel, for example–common fish in Europe.  Remember organics are only coming from Europe, and these fish would be sourced locally. Fish oils from Chile—Think very clean waters– are also used to extend organic feed (as long as the fish used meet the byproduct requirement.)  To extract oils from organic plants, however, without using chemical solvents is expensive, explains one manufacturer. 

The consequences? The diets of organic farmed Atlantic salmon are higher in fish content than conventional diets that rely on plants and animals.  This means that  organics would contain fewer omega 6 fatty acids, and that’s a good thing. We eat too many of them already.

But does this also mean that organic salmon also contain more industrial pollutants? more omega 3s than conventional salmon?  To answer that, we need to know what fish and fish oils go into all the different feed formulations—in what proportions and where those fish  components are from. And no one has access to all that information.

So how do organics impact your health?  Unfortunately, it’s hard to say.  A well- placed source confirmed my suspicions that farmed salmon from Europe, whether conventional or organic, may likely be higher in most pollutants than salmon from Chile or BC, where waters are cleaner and plants and animals are more often substituted. Still, it’s nothing to worry about, he says, because Europe’s limits on POPs are tough.   



Nothing’s perfect.  By controlling your portion sizes of whichever salmon you choose, you can minimize pollutants and still get enough of those healthy omega 3s. We’ll get to that–suggested weekly rations for each of the many species–in the next chapter of this anti-cancer series.  

1 thought on “Salmon Says, an Anti-Cancer Investigation: Part 4. How Healthy is Farmed Atlantic? Organic?

  1. Note: This letter was in response to an article written by Susan Schwartz for The Montreal Gazette.

    Hello Susan, My name is Keith Richardson and I just recently was given a copy of the very interesting article which you wrote regarding Sugar Miller’s studies on the salmon industry.
    I was happy to conclude after reading Mrs «Miller’s report from her research concerning salmon farming that I am not the only one that is deeply concerned. One of the reasons for this is that I have been a fanatic for fly fishing for Atlantic salmon for the last 35 years and over time, what is happening in the farm raised salmon industry has changed greatly my preferred sport. Salmon from these farms are escaping on a regular basis because of poorly enforced regulation and it is spilling into our rivers creating a problem that who knows what will happen in the future. Wild salmon are matching up in the rivers with farm raised, creating a new species yet to be renamed officially. I can honestly say that I have caught both in the same pools on the same rivers, the farmed ones are distinct because they are white in the flesh without very much taste and do not fight half as much as the wild ones.
    As mentioned in Mrs Miller’s article that Atlantic salmon are always farmed and that wild Atlantic salmon exist but are not fished because it is an endangered species is true, however the word “commercially” should have been added in the text to best describe the current situation. Every summer I am thankful to be able to fish several rivers either in Quebec of Labrador and consider myself extremely fortunate to be able to catch and enjoy a good meal of wild Atlantic salmon and can tell you and your readers that it is very different to any of the farm raised salmon that is available from any of the large super market chains. The taste, fattiness and texture are not at all of the same resemblance and one should definitely sit back and question why so much a difference when it is the same species of fish?

    The farmed salmon which are of my greatest concern are the salmon being raised and imported from Chile. They are the least expensive on the market and the most popular in all the large food stores. I spent a fair amount of time in the southern part of Chile over the last 8 or 9 years and on quite a few occasions I did a bit of detective work on the Chilean salmon farming industry. On several occasions I attempted to try to get into a fish plant using different resources available but every time I was turned down abruptly and you could see that no one had any interest for a foreigner to get to take a look at what was going on, it was to be their best kept secret for one of their largest industries.
    One day while I was sitting down at a small coffee house near Lago llanquile I got lucky. I met an elderly gentlemen sitting next to me who had worked most of his life as a manager in one of the local fish plants and he was more than eager to discuss the farmed salmon industry of which he definitely knew quite a lot about. According to his testimony all the salmon raised in Chile are fed food pellets derived and made from locally raised animal bi-products. Pork, chicken, horse meat, cows often slaughtered or also found dead on the side of the road, anything edible to make the pellets is used. This explains how a fish which should weigh only a few pounds when in the wild, ends up weighing 15 pounds while being farm raised only after 2 or 3 years. They are force fed in over populated pens and they must use antibiotics to clean the floor of the lake to prevent the salmon from eating their own excrement. The fish have developed malformations from having double sized heads, huge stomachs, no tails and major deformations, which by the way I have seen with my own eyes being sold at reduced prices at the local fish markets in Puerto Montt to the poorer inhabitants of the region I was told that a couple of weeks before they are slaughtered if you opened them up, the meat is as white as a pike or a white fish so in order to get them to look reddish-pink like a normal salmon they are fed shrimp which are imported from mainland China, Vietnam or »Indonesia, of course, who would want to buy white salmon? Now we could get into another discussion, what are the shrimp being fed over in these oriental countries where there is little or no government food control?

    This all said, I thought that I should share my experience and personal information with someone who appears to have similar interests and priorities. I am glad to see that there is another “research nut” out there who is concerned about the consequences of unacceptable and improper techniques of supporting our food chain which will cause irreparable long term damages to the health of every person on this planet. The direction we are going is definitely uncharted!!

    I hope that my comments will be received positively and would appreciate that you inform Mrs Miller of my thoughts and concerns.

    Best Regards,

    Keith Richardson


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