Is Something Fishy Going On?

An examination of the merits of wild salmon and the demerits of farmed salmon.


Salmon swimming upstream by Brendan Darrah Forristal, May 2003

It all started innocently with a delicious salmon dinner after a day’s sightseeing in the Canadian Maritimes. That simple incident initiated a long, revealing road of discovery about how salmon is grown, processed, and sold to North American consumers.

About midnight, I was itching inside and out, as if every blood vessel were dilated. At first I didn’t connect my itching to the salmon dinner. I just assumed that I was allergic to something I’d eaten. But three days later, another salmon meal provoked an even worse reaction. I made a 1:30 a.m. phone call to a friend who works for a wholesale fish distributor. He vaguely remembered that farmed salmon was colored with red food dye. Could this be the source of my misery?

It was a Boston fish broker who provided the first clue. He told me the name of two red food dyes used to color the flesh of farmed salmon–canthaxanthin (pronounced can tha zan thin) and its cousin astaxanthin (pronounced as ta zan thin). With these two words, I did an Internet search that yielded hundreds of pages of information.

Ninety-five percent of all Atlantic salmon (that’s the species Salmo salar and doesn’t refer to geography) is farmed–that includes most Irish, Scottish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Tasmanian, Canadian, and Chilean salmon.

In nature, canthaxanthin (beta-carotene-4,4’dione) and astaxanthin (3, 3′-dihydroxy-a, beta-carotene- 4,4’dione) are naturally occurring carotenoids found in lobster carapaces, krill, shrimp shells, flamingo feathers, and red algae. (Canthaxanthin derives its name from the Cantharelles mushroom of the same color.) In the wild, salmon forage the oceans feeding on colorful crustaceans, plankton, and algae, which naturally impart a beautiful shade of pink to the flesh of their predators. But when salmon are farmed and unable to forage, their flesh is an insipid, unappealing color–one few consumers would choose. Hence, canthaxanthin or astaxanthin or both are added to the feed of farmed salmonid fish. Apparently, although astaxanthin is normally found in wild salmon, canthaxanthin is more efficiently bioabsorbed.

Ninety-five percent of all Atlantic salmon (that’s the species Salmo salar and doesn’t refer to geography) is farmed–that includes most Irish, Scottish, Norwegian, Icelandic, Tasmanian, Canadian, and Chilean salmon. Chilean farmers raise both the Atlantic and Pacific species in thousands of miles of deepwater fjords. (Many Chilean salmon farms are owned by Norwegian corporations.) Almost 100 percent of all farmed salmon is artificially colored with either canthaxanthin or astaxanthin, a process sometimes euphemistically called “color finishing.”

Responding to an ever-increasing demand for salmon–which must, however, be pink–several major chemical companies produce canthaxanthin and astaxanthin for color finishing. Swiss chemical giant Hoffman La Roche synthetically produces canthaxanthin and an astaxanthin called Carophyll Pink from petrochemicals and provides customers with its SalmoFan–much like an artist’s color wheel but in various shades of pink–to help salmon farmers and buyers create and/or order a color that sells well.

Two Hawaii-based firms, Cyanotech and Aquasearch, produce astaxanthin by extraction from astaxanthin-producing microalgae, while agricultural behemoth Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) started manufacturing an astaxanthin marketed as “Salmon Pink” from a strain of red yeast, Pfaffia rhodozyma, grown on corn by-products. (In 1997 Igene, a small biotechnology firm based in Columbia, Maryland, filed a $300 million federal lawsuit accusing ADM of stealing documents related to making a more readily absorbent astaxanthin–supposedly worth millions. The case is still pending.) In 1999, the Japanese beer company Kirin applied for a U.S. patent to protect a gene-cloning method of making astaxanthin that involves introducing a “gene cluster for astaxanthin biosynthesis” into E. coli. It’s obvious that color finishing is big money and, sources say, one of the largest costs associated with salmon farming.

Hoffman Laroche’s SalmoFan and buyer’s guide

As an interesting side note, farmed rainbow trout also gets dyes in its feed. The color-finished fillets are often marketed as a fictive species called “salmon trout.” In a speech to the National Fisheries Institute in 1991, FDA commissioner David Kessler chided the seafood industry for the practice of species substitution, which he defined as “substituting a less expensive or less desirable species of fish for one that consumers value more.”

Canthaxanthin is also fed to chickens to turn the skin and flesh a pleasing yellow and make egg yolks yellower. Recently food manufacturers began employing a 10 percent canthaxanthin powder as a coloring agent. For example, the giant juice manufacturer Ocean Spray started adding canthaxanthin to drinks like Mega Melon and Pink Grapefruit juice.

I have no problem with Ocean Spray; it has clearly labeled the inclusion of canthaxanthin in its juice formula, allowing the consumer a conscious choice to buy the product or not. Its consumer hotline describes this 10 percent canthaxanthin powder as follows: “Canthaxanthin is a red-orange carotenoid pigment from the same family as beta-carotene. Because it is not plentiful in nature, we use it in its synthetic form which is nature-identical. It is not Kosher because of the addition of bovine gelatin which is used as a processing aid.”

The product data sheet for Hoffman La Roche’s Carophyll Pink also lists gelatin as an ingredient. Good news for Jewish salmon lovers is that Rabbi Doneal Epstein at the Union of Orthodox Congregations of America in New York City verified that if an animal or fish eats a nonkosher item it is not rendered nonkosher itself. For example, although salmon dine on a lot of nonkosher crustaceans, because salmon have scales and gills they are still kosher.

Better labeling needed

Unfortunately, when it comes to the sale of salmon, the use of canthaxanthin or astaxanthin (synthetic or natural) is hidden from the consumer. We’ve all seen the beautiful displays of salmon at the local fish counter without realizing that the varying shades of pink are artificially created. The FDA lists canthaxanthin as a noncertifiable color additive for food use under 21 CFR Section 73.75 of the Federal Register. Astaxanthin, also a noncertifiable color additive, is listed under Section 73.35 of the same chapter. Both have GRAS status–they are generally recognized as safe.) The Federal Register, Section 101.22 (b), states that the presence of the color additive canthaxanthin must be declared on the label of any food, including salmonid fish, even if it is not in package form–that is, on sale at a fish counter. Additionally, it requires that labeling statements of artificial coloring be “likely to be read by the ordinary person under customary conditions of purchase and use of such food.” The Federal Register goes so far as to say a food–such as salmonid fish containing canthaxanthin–that is not accurately labeled is “misbranded.”

Current farming methods have severely endangered wild salmon stocks wherever they’re located, as farmed salmon escape into the wild because of storms, high seas, and net failures.

Further regulations call for declaration of the use of canthaxanthin or astaxanthin at the retail level, by insisting that the labeling found on the bulk fish container (the one the fish wholesaler receives from the fish broker) be displayed on the sales package or reproduced on a counter card with similar information. When I talked to Judith Foulke at the FDA press office, she confirmed that there are no exemptions to this ruling, no additions, alterations, or addenda.

I find this regulation to be largely ignored–confirmed by the fact that most salespeople at in-store fish counters have no idea that red food dye is almost ubiquitously added to farmed salmon and by the fact I have never personally encountered a fish “counter card” declaring its presence. A few stores declare that their salmon is farmed but omit any other details. Fish wholesalers receive shipments of salmon in containers with labels that list the use of canthaxanthin and/or astaxanthin, but that information is rarely passed on to the consumer.

A health risk or not?

To be fair to the manufacturers of canthaxanthin or astaxanthin, my investigation did not yield any reports of documented allergic reactions. It did reveal that pure canthaxanthin is also sold as an oral tanning agent–tanning a willing consumer from the inside out when the canthaxanthin molecules attach to the subcutaneous layer of fat cells. (I doubt the dye is subcutaneous specific, however.) There has been one reported death from aplastic anemia (failure of the bone marrow to manufacture red blood cells) attributed to the use of canthaxanthin as an oral tanning agent. (The patient refused a lifesaving transfusion but had reported a generalized itching.) Several reports of people developing crystalline deposits on the retina ascribe the condition to orally ingesting synthetic canthaxanthin in large amounts. The literature describes these deposits as “asymptomatic.” I found no reports of carcinogenic properties, and some manufacturers claim that it has anticarcinogenic properties like beta-carotene.

Many studies have shown that beta-carotene from fruits and vegetables is protective, but synthetic beta-carotene gives contradictory results. An eight-year Finnish study on lung cancer did not detect any protective effect of synthetic beta-carotene; rather, those receiving it had a death rate 8 percent higher than controls. I wonder if the same holds true for canthaxanthin.

A 1996 study done by the FDA’s Office of Cosmetics and Colors was undertaken to determine the ratio of “configurational isomers of all-trans astaxanthin” found in wild salmon to use as a reference point in determining whether a specific salmon was aquacultured or wild. The results clearly showed that the distributions or ratios of isomers in the flesh of wild Atlantic salmon and Pacific salmon are similar “but significantly different” from those in aquacultured salmon dyed with synthetic astaxanthin. (The method of analysis is also used to determine the presence of astaxanthin derived from Pfaffia yeast and microalgae.)

An Alaskan salmon troller

The Federal Register discusses at great length the “cumulative exposure to canthaxanthin” and specifies that color additives should not exceed eighty milligrams per kilogram of finished feed. (The same is true for astaxanthin.) And to date, the Federal Register makes no distinction between biologically produced or synthetically produced canthaxanthin or astaxanthin. Are anthaxanthin and astaxanthin toxic at some level? Is there a minimum safe level of exposure? People are individuals, so no one can predict how they will react. In the late 1990s there was a movement to have canthaxanthin banned in England even though it was approved for food by the European Union. Tanning pills containing canthaxanthin were taken off the English market in 1987.

Two wrongs don’t make a right

In addition to all the consumer issues surrounding salmon, there are related production issues. Topping the list is the escalating controversy over mismanagement of marine fisheries in general, especially finfisheries. (Finfish is a term used to separate true fish from shellfish, and finfish farming is the growing of finfish such as salmon, cod, and halibut in a controlled environment.) Because wild finfish stocks have been weakened from overfishing, the U.S. Department of Commerce has been promoting a plan to subsidize and expand the domestic aquiculture industry, which would probably include the expansion of finfish farming.

To many environmentalists, two wrongs don’t make a right. According to this logic, overfishing should not be corrected by expanding finfish farming, which has had a poor track record. Current farming methods have severely endangered wild salmon stocks wherever they’re located, as farmed salmon escape into the wild because of storms, high seas, and net failures. Escaped salmon can cause huge problems for native populations by transmitting diseases like sea lice, a natural parasite that multiplies in hundreds of thousands on salmon cages and kills wild smolts as they try to adapt to salt water. Additionally, fish farms pollute coastal waters with nitrogenous fish waste, antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides.

State law bans finfish farming in Alaska, where the five indigenous wild Pacific species (Oncorhynchus sp.)–king, silver, sockeye, pink, and chum–are the basis of a thriving seafood industry. Audubon’s Living Oceans Program and several other conservation seafood guides give wild Alaskan salmon high marks. Alaskan fishermen are concerned about escaped farmed salmon from British Columbia for a number of reasons, including the potential harm to wild stocks from the transmission of disease, the weakening of the gene pool if farmed salmon breed in the wild, and competition for habitat and food. Though not a problem in British Columbia, there is also the issue of “transgenic,” or mixed species, salmon, which are genetically modified to grow faster.

Good food makes a good fish

Two families of essential fatty acids (EFAs)–the omega-6 and the omega-3 fatty acids–are vital nutrients for growth and development. They cannot be manufactured by the body so must be obtained in the diet. (Levels of omega-6 fatty acids in the modern diet are too high, while omega-3 fatty acids are lacking.) Two excellent sources of omega-3s are oily fish from cold northern waters and leafy green vegetables. According to some authorities, salmon is the No. 1 animal source of omega-3 fatty acids. (Flaxseed is the No. 1 plant-based source.)

According to nutrition expert Artemis Simopoulos, wild salmon is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids and the nutritional value of farmed salmon depends on their diet. In her new book The Omega Diet, coauthored with Jo Robinson, she writes that fish fed grain instead of fish meal will be “abnormally high in omega-6 fatty acids and low in omega-3 fatty acids–not what you want.” A recent taste test set up by the Wall Street Journal/Northwest Edition pitted wild salmon against their hatchery-raised and farmed cousins. The wild salmon won hands down, while the farmed were deemed less flavorful and mushy.

Feed is a key issue. Since salmon are carnivores, most commercial salmon feeds contain about 45 percent fish meal and 25 percent fish oil. Depending on market prices the protein fish-meal portion is from forage fish or poultry by-products (even feathers) and blood meal, with grains like corn, soy, and wheat used as a binder or filler. Since it takes three pounds of forage fish to produce one pound of farmed salmon, fish farmers are experimenting with other ratios of feed. This 3:1 ratio is the same as in nature, but since salmon farming is expanding so rapidly, the need for forage fish is increasing exponentially. Consequently, the salmon farming industry is toying with replacing some or all of the fish meal with “other ingredients, including meals of plant origin.”

But when you fiddle with nature, you change the quality of the end product. In her research Simopoulos found that wild plants are much higher in omega-3s and antioxidants than cultivated plants are. According to Simopoulos, this principle also extends to farmed fish because the composition of the fish depends on what they are fed. In their natural environment of rivers, lakes, and the deep blue sea, salmon can feed on smaller forage fish, algae, and seaweeds, which are good sources of omega-3s. In the farmed environment, by contrast, the composition of their flesh depends on the feeds, which are generally not as high in omega-3s. (The lack of exercise in confinement is probably a factor as well.)

A grain-based diet for fish will open up another concern. According to the August 1998 issue of Consumer Reports, fully half of the U.S. soy crop and one-third of the corn crop was genetically modified, or GMO. (Part of today’s canola crop is genetically modified as well.) One can only extrapolate that the ratio of the GMO grains going into feed is about equal to the percentage of GMO grains raised. This may cause no alarm to some consumers, but it will be a shock to those who feel that GMO foods are a threat. For example, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) will not grant organic certification to a product if it has been produced from or with GMO seeds or feeds. Recently the OTA encouraged the FDA to adopt mandatory labeling of GMO foods and called for a moratorium on the use of GMOs in all agricultural production.

An educated consumer

Since it would be a shame to eliminate salmon from the diet, what is an educated consumer to do? I recommend buying wild salmon from Alaska. (Simopoulos also recommends wild-caught salmon.) Not only are you getting more omega-3s, you avoid color additives as well. As one of Alaska’s first runs, Copper River salmon has made a name for itself, but as salmon lovers learn more about the food they eat, I think they will develop an appreciation for salmon from all over Alaska–Sitka to Kodiak to Cook Inlet to Bristol Bay. Fish markets in Seattle compete at the start of each salmon season to see who’s going to receive the first king salmon from the Copper River. That run is only the debut of any year’s salmon harvest.

All commercially available Alaskan salmon is caught by family-owned,

All commercially available Alaskan salmon is caught by family-owned, independent fishermen using relatively small boats. In lieu of seeking a meaningful friendship with an individual salmon fisherman, what can consumers do to enjoy wild Alaskan salmon in their homes outside the great state of Alaska? Buy online from reputable vendors like Vital Choice–here’s the link for WILD WONDERFUL SALMON

independent fishermen using relatively small boats. In lieu of seeking a meaningful friendship with an individual salmon fisherman, what can consumers do to enjoy wild Alaskan salmon in their homes outside the great state of Alaska? First of all, continue to educate yourself about the origins of your seafood and don’t be afraid to ask questions, because changes in how seafood is marketed will be consumer driven. For now, look and ask for fresh wild salmon steaks and fillets in season (May-October) and individually quick frozen (IQF) wild salmon year round. Read the packaging carefully. Look for the word Alaska, and remember words like “imported” or “caught in icy waters” are not synonymous with wild.

One salmon product to avoid is fat-free salmon patties, because–foolishly– all the health-producing omega-3 fats have been removed. Canned salmon, which is fully cooked and shelf stable, can be a good choice. Huge amounts of Alaskan sockeye and pink salmon are immediately canned from fresh fish and are not treated with preservatives. (Remember to eat the tiny bones, which are softened during the canning process, as they are an excellent source of calcium.) And what about smoked salmon? Most of it is farmed–unless it’s Alaskan–even if the packaging invokes visions of salmon jumping upstream to spawn naturally.

Additionally, a recent Dutch study revealed that some vacuum-packed salmon is composed of smaller pieces of salmon that have been “restructured” or bound together with the protein casein, which is also found in milk. A report in the December 18, 1999, issue of the medical journal Lancet described a woman with milk allergies who, within an hour of eating this kind of salmon, developed itchy ears, facial swelling, nausea, and stomach pain. The study also revealed that manufacturers have recently started using casein to restructure meat and other fish products. The researcher in the case discussed the “importance of proper ingredient labeling, especially when food allergens are involved.”

A bad night after a salmon dinner has led to some fishy discoveries about the salmon business, but I’m still left with questions. Was my allergic reaction caused by an unnatural distribution of isomers in synthetic canthaxanthin or astaxanthin, or some other hiccup in the production or preparation of salmon I’ve yet to uncover? I don’t know, but I will keep asking questions, and I encourage all consumers to request fresh or frozen-at-sea wild Alaskan salmon for dining out or in and encourage readers to demand mandatory in-store labeling of all fish products: fresh, frozen, canned, or smoked. (Labels should state the use of colorants, antibiotics, genetic modification, and pesticides in production.) And lastly, ask your congressman to support finfish farming methods that don’t pollute the environment, especially for open-sea aquaculture of salmon.

Additional reading

  • Deirdre McQuillan, “Salmon Savior,” The World & I , August 1996.
  • Rosamond Naylor et al., “Nature’s Subsidies to Shrimp and Salmon Farming,”  Science, October 30, 1998.
  • New England Journal of Medicine, “The Alpha-tocopherol Beta-Carotene Cancer Prevention Study Group,” vol. 330, no. 15, April 14, 1994.
  • Artemis Simopoulos, M.D., Jo Robinson, The Omega Diet: The Lifesaving Nutritional Program Based on the Diet of the Island of Crete, HarperCollins, New York, 1999.