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
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., 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:
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:
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