Fishy Debate: Groups Argue Over Salmon's Benefit to Pregnant Moms

Outraged by an advertisement that markets farm-raised salmon to pregnant women, the National Environmental Trust filed a formal complaint today with the Federal Trade Commission.

The ad, run by the industry trade group Salmon of the Americas, appeared in The New York Times Sunday Magazine in the fall of 2005 as part of a six-page spread. The page in question shows a smiling pregnant woman above the text "Just what the doctor ordered," a reference to ocean-farmed salmon being good for pregnant women because it is high in omega-3 fatty acids.

The FTC filing is the latest action in an ongoing dispute between the two groups. On one hand, the National Environmental Trust says that farm-raised salmon has been shown to contain dangerous levels of certain carcinogens, mostly because they feed on bottom-feeding fish.

But Salmon of the Americas says that the research showing the link is outdated, and that the industry has "had an aggressive program over the last few years to reduce levels polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a group of carcinogens," said Alex Trent, the executive director of Salmon of the Americas.

"The [National Environmental Trust] have singled out farmed salmon because they do not like salmon farming, and they want to disrupt the farmed salmon industry," he said.

Trent also noted the studies used to wage the complaint were based on fish collected and examined in 2001, which, he said, did not provide recent enough information to be accurate. Also, he pointed out that other experts have said that just because a contaminant is detected does not mean it has any harmful effects.

But the National Environmental Trust's Pure Salmon Campaign deemed the ad "deceptive" and the actions of Salmon of the Americas "irresponsible." Its complaint to the FTC asked for the commission to begin enforcement proceedings against the Salmon of the Americas group.

"Farm-raised salmon has been proven to contain high levels of chemicals that are harmful to developing fetuses and which increase the risk of cancer to the mother," stated the complaint.

Zoe Johnson, a pregnant woman onboard with the complaint, said she believed the ad unfairly targeted women like her.

"Pregnant women are hypersensitive to these types of advertisements," Johnson said. "We're told less and less about what's right and what's wrong."

Dr. David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the State University of New York at Albany, said that research done on farmed salmon showed the fish have 10 times the level of PCBs and other carcinogens than do wild salmon.

"If an infant is exposed before birth, from the levels in the mother's body, these cause a reduction of IQ that appears to be irreversible," he said.

Ready to Fight Back

Carpenter also said that the ad builds its argument around the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids but fails to mention possible risks posed by carcinogens present in farmed salmon.

Trent said his organization is ready to back up its claims.

"We welcome the opportunity to air this subject in a forum overseen by a body of their choosing, in this case, the FTC," he said, noting that the woman in the ad, "Paula," is not an actress and her story is real; her physician recommended she include farm-raised salmon in her diet during pregnancy.

Any FTC investigation will be closed to the public unless it results in a court filing. The agency has the authority to force organizations to stop running advertisements, and in rare cases, has even asked organizations to run corrective advertising.

Theresa Wieberg is a 2006 David Kaplan Fellow.