Nofima salmon counter

“It’s all right to eat farmed salmon.” This was the headline published by the United Kingdom’s Daily Telegraph newspaper in the run-up to the festive season when more farmed salmon is sold in the UK than at any other time of year.

And it was selling well again at the end of last year, helped enormously by price cuts of up to 50 percent. The fresh fish counter in one Sainsbury’s supermarket on the outskirts of London, which seemed to have nothing else but salmon on display, sold seafood worth GBP 10,000 (USD 15,646) in a single day in the week leading up to Christmas.

Most consumers obviously agree that farmed salmon is OK for a festive meal with family and friends. So why should there be any doubt in the consumer’s mind?

The writer of the article was Xanthe Clay, the Daily Telegraph’s food columnist, who is “concerned with real issues.” She had visited Scottish Sea Farms “to find out the cost of farmed salmon becoming a Christmas food favorite.” And she wasn’t talking about the monetary cost, but the cost to the environment of farming salmon.

Clay’s article published on the Daily Telegraph website on 15 December was titled: “Well farmed salmon is key to sustainability.” When it appeared in print in the food and drink section of the weekend supplement of the Daily Telegraph on 17 December, the headline had been changed to “A leap in popularity” followed by “Don’t fret: it’s all right to serve salmon — provided it’s well farmed.”

So the message coming across loud and clear was that well farmed salmon is obviously all right to eat. It’s hard to disagree with this. However, on reading the article, it was still packed with misconceptions about salmon farming practices.

Clay’s main concern was that “fish escaping from farms are contributing to the decline of wild salmon stocks by transferring disease.” Rory Conn, commercial manager for Scottish Sea Farms, told her that farming was not to blame for the decline in wild stocks. “Wild salmon numbers were declining for 20 years before there was any salmon farming,” he pointed out.

However, some of the quotes from Scottish Sea Farms staff in the article hardly showed salmon farming in the best possible light. John Barrington, the company’s quality manager, told Clay that farming methods used in Norway produced “a fatty fish with a lot of oil running off when you cook it.”

Barrington may have been trying to promote Scottish farming methods, but consumers don’t differentiate between salmon farmed in different countries at the point of sale — they are usually not told where it comes from anyway. And, as the article stated, the bulk of the salmon eaten in the UK is Norwegian, so it was not the ideal comment to make to increase consumer confidence in farmed salmon.

Barrington also talked about pollution, another issue best avoided in conversation with journalists. “Run-off from the land from the high levels of industrialization in the northern hemisphere means the wild fish used for the feed are intrinsically polluted,” he is quoted as saying.

He then mentioned that salmon produced for Marks & Spencer by Scottish Sea Farms “uses cleaner, southern hemisphere fish from Peru.” Clay seized on the transport issue in her article. “So we import fish from South America to feed to fish in Scotland,” she told her readers. “Indeed, the environmental sacrifice is considered worthwhile to have a safe product.”

While the visit to Scottish Sea Farms may have made Clay more aware of salmon-farming practices in Scotland, and she did seem impressed by what she saw, unfortunately it also gave her more potentially harmful facts to publish in addition to the views she already harbored.

It’s impossible to predict what effect Clay’s article will have on its readers. However, the Saturday edition of the Daily Telegraph is read by 2 million people in higher socio-economic groups, so it has the potential to influence the eating choices of a significant section of the country’s middle-class consumers. And these are the people classed as “fish lovers,” so they should not be put off from eating farmed salmon.

The watchword when talking to journalists is: “Think carefully about what you say before you say it.”

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