Readers of "O" magazine were badly misled on mercury in salmon 04/08/2005
NOTE: This article was updated on 12/30/2016, to reflect subsequent developments.
We admire Oprah Winfrey, so we were disheartened to discover that the April, 2005 issue of her “O” magazine ran an article wrongly calling into question the safety of wild salmon.
Many of you have called requesting an explanation so we thought we'd share with you our letter to the editor of "O" magazine:
Dear Ms. Gross,
I am writing in response to the April, 2005 article by Daphne Zuniga, titled “My Mercury Poisoning.” While well-intentioned, Ms. Zuniga’s article contained misleading information. Unfortunately, this error disparages the safety of wild Alaskan salmon, which in fact is one of the safest, healthiest fish available to consumers.
The “Go Fish” chart accompanying Ms. Zuniga’s article — which cites Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) as its source — offers advice on how often it is safe to eat various species, based on their average mercury and/or PCB levels.
However, information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. FDA, and respected environmental organizations contradicts the chart’s recommendation to eat salmon (and sardines) no more than once a week. Its recommendation to strictly limit consumption of salmon—with no distinction drawn between wild and farmed fish — implies that all salmon is relatively high in mercury.
With regard to wild salmon, this implication does not match the findings of any credible scientific source we can find. Further, the footnote on salmon indicates that it is high in PCBs, when the data show that that characterization applies only to farmed salmon, as discussed below.
The chart accompanying Ms. Zuniga’s article reflects errors in the “Guide to Healthy Fish” chart displayed on the Mercury Action Web site operated by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR).
The PSR chart asserts that it is not safe to eat more than “1-3 servings per month” of “fresh-frozen” salmon, and makes no distinction between farmed and wild-caught salmon (While all ocean salmon — wild or farmed — is extremely low in mercury, farmed salmon is unusually high in other toxins, especially PCBs).
And the PSR’s chart — a link to which appears in the “Protecting Yourself” section of the Web version of the article — is even more misleading, since it ranks salmon (generically) as barely better than the most mercury-contaminated species (e.g., swordfish). This damaging assertion is flat wrong.
Despite the anti-salmon implication of the PSR’s Guide to Healthy Fish chart, its Mercury Action Web site offers a link to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency website, whose advice contradicts the PSR’s negative assertion:
U.S. EPA — Fish: What Pregnant Women and Parents Should Know
- Eat 8-12 ounces of a variety of fish a week.
• That’s 2 or 3 servings of fish a week.
• For young children, give them 2 or 3 servings of fish a week with the portion right for
the child’s age and calorie needs.
- Choose fish lower in mercury.
• Many of the most commonly eaten fish are lower in mercury.
• These include salmon, shrimp, pollock, tuna (light canned), tilapia,
catfish, and cod.
- Avoid 4 types of fish: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish,
and king mackerel.
• These 4 types of fish are highest in mercury.
• Limit white (albacore) tuna to 6 ounces a week.
The US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) seafood advisory also lists “fresh/frozen salmon” among the species “lowest in mercury.” In fact, the mean mercury levels shown for salmon are the lowest in the FDA’s “lowest in mercury” category, and are matched only by hake and tilapia.
Test data compiled by the three federal agencies that monitor mercury levels in fish—EPA, FDA, and NOAA—show that the average mercury content in salmon is very low: only 0.008 PPM.
Like these federal agencies, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) — a leading critic of weak government efforts to limit mercury pollution — considers wild Alaskan salmon safe to eat on a frequent basis.
Based on US government tests, EWG lists wild Pacific Salmon among the species lowest in mercury5 and says, "The risk of mercury in salmon appears to be minimal."
However, while both farmed and wild salmon are relatively low in mercury, nutrition-savvy physicians like Nicholas Perricone, M.D., Christiane Northrup, M.D., Andrew Weil M.D., and Stephen Pratt, M.D. — all of whom have appeared on Oprah’s television show — recommend wild salmon for the myriad health benefits attributed to its very high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.
These well-informed physicians favor wild salmon over farmed salmon for these reasons:
- Farmed salmon contains levels of toxic industrial pollutants called PCBs that are five to 40 times higher than those found in any other commercial protein source. While credible scientists doubt that the levels of PCBs in farmed salmon present a significant risk, a 2002 study by Canadian scientists reported the sobering fact that farmed salmon contain significantly higher levels of all of the chemical contaminants found in ocean fish.
- The non-profit organization Environmental Defense ranks farmed salmon as less safe than albacore tuna — a fish relatively high in mercury — in terms of the amounts considered safe to eat. (Compared with standard commercial albacore, the low-weight — 15 lbs. or under — troll-caught Pacific albacore tuna offered by Vital Choice are lower in mercury.
- While wild salmon and farmed salmon are both rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, farmed salmon are much higher in total fat. This is because farmed salmon also contain high levels of saturated fat and pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats.
I appreciate Ms. Zuniga’s effort to warn consumers, especially nursing mothers and women of child-bearing age, of the dangers of mercury in seafood. But U.S. health authorities and knowledgeable doctors urge Americans to eat more omega-3 fatty acids, whose benefits to heart health, brain function, and child development are undisputed.
It would be a shame were your readers to avoid one of the healthiest fish in the sea — wild salmon — because of an inadvertent error.
It is also unfortunate that all who make their living harvesting and marketing wild salmon should suffer because one of the most widely read, credible magazines in America was mislead into wrongly disparaging the fruits of their labor.
Salmon fisherman in Alaska risk their lives to harvest one of the healthiest foods left on earth, and can ill afford unwarranted damage to wild salmon markets already under siege by nutritionally and environmentally inferior farmed salmon.
On behalf of the wild salmon industry and all Oprah readers who look to you for sound advice with regard to their health and well-being, I respectfully request that you print a clarification in your next issue, and correct the article on the Oprah.com website. This is what I suggest:
- Please revise the “Go Fish” chart using information from EWG, FDA, and EPA, which should lead you to move wild salmon to the “Enjoy (up to two servings a week)” category (In fact, the data suggest that it is safe and smart to eat wild salmon even more frequently).
- The chart listing for salmon under “Show Restraint” should specify “Farmed salmon,” rather than “Salmon (especially farmed).”
- In the “Protecting Yourself” portion of the article, I would remove all mention of and links to PSR and its Mercury Action Web site, since its information is inaccurate. Instead, I suggest that you link to the joint EPA/FDA advisory.
There is nothing more important to health than proper nutrition, so it is disheartening to see wide dissemination of inaccuracies that wrongly discourage frequent consumption of a food (wild salmon) whose safety and broad array or health benefits are well documented in the scientific literature.
You will find many links to sound information about the safety and health benefits of wild salmon on our Seafood Purity page.
Thank you for your attention and consideration.
Randy Hartnell, President
Vital Choice Seafood
- PSR/ARHP Guide to Healthy Fish. Accessed online April 5, 2005 at http://www.mercuryaction.org/
- What You Need to Know about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish. Accessed online April 5, 2005 at http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fishadvice/advice.html
- Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish. Accessed online April 5, 2005 at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~frf/sea-mehg.html
- Brain Food: What women should know about mercury contamination of fish. Accessed online April 5, 2005 at http://www.ewg.org/
- EWG’s Fish List: What Women Should Know About Mercury In Fish. Accessed online April 5, 2005 at http://www.ewg.org/
- Easton MD, Luszniak D, Von der GE. Preliminary examination of contaminant loadings in farmed salmon, wild salmon and commercial salmon feed. Chemosphere. 2002 Feb;46(7):1053-74.
- Jacobs M, Ferrario J, Byrne C. 2002a. Investigation of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, dibenzo-p-furans and selected coplanar biphenyls in Scottish farmed Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). Chemosphere. 2002 Apr;47(2):183-91.
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). 1999. Summary report of contaminant results in fish feed, fishmeal and fish oil. Accessed online July 21, 2003 at http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/toce.shtml.
- Consumption Advisories: Fish to Avoid. Accessed online July 21, 2003 at http://www.edf.org/page.cfm?tagID=1521
- U.S. EPA & FDA. Fish: What Pregnant Women and Parents Should Know. Accessed at https://www.vitalchoice.com/files/catalog/pdfs/FDA-EPA-Updated-Seafood-Advisory-for-Children-Pregnant-or-Lactating-Women.pdf