‘Happy Salmon’ makes farmed salmon industry unhappy

Norway’s Lerøy Seafood Group has been heavily criticized for launching its “Happy Salmon” which it claims is free from antibiotics. The product name might well be a good selling point for Lerøy, but it also implies that other salmon farmed in Norway are chock full of antibiotics, which they are not.

All salmon now farmed in Norway, which produced 1.3 million metric tons (MT) last year, are free from antibiotics at the point of sale, and have been for nearly 20 years. Plus virtually all salmon farmed in Norway are not treated with antibiotics at any stage during their life cycle.

“It has been known for years that Norwegian salmon farmers have stopped using antibiotics,” said Erik Hempel, communications director for the Nor-Fishing Foundation. “A very small amount is used by some for the treatment of disease, but the total is kilograms rather than [metric] tons.

“And even if antibiotics are used, the fish are not harvested until the treatment has finished and time has been allowed for any residues to dissipate.”

When the farmed salmon industry really got underway in Norway in the 1980s, the salmon were treated with various antibiotics. It was not known at that time which diseases the fish might be susceptible to, so the antibiotics were given as a precaution.

The use of antibiotics rose dramatically, coming to a peak in 1988 when 50 MT were used to treat half a million MT of fish. However, it was realized that consumers would not be prepared to buy fish they thought were “contaminated,” so the use was scaled down. It fell to virtually zero in 1997 and has stayed at this level ever since.

“I do not think that the average Norwegian consumer knows much about this [the use of antibiotics],” said Hempel, “which is why it is a bad idea to remind them that in the old days there were quite a lot of antibiotics being used.”

Outside of Norway, there is probably no acknowledgement of the use of antibiotics at all, except perhaps in the United States, where suppliers of Alaska salmon were known to have had posters behind their desks proclaiming: “Our salmon don’t do drugs!”

Hempel is very skeptical about what is said about farmed salmon in the United States. “With regard to the USA, we all know that there, special interest groups will claim anything to ‘prove’ their point, and they probably still claim that all salmon farming is using antibiotics.

“On the other hand, it would not surprise me if antibiotics were more common there than in Norway and Scotland. A statement like ‘Our fish don’t do drugs!’ is difficult to argue with, because it does not say anything directly, it only hints that something is wrong with the competition.”

Hempel raises a significant point here, which has been raised by other observers. There already is, or seems to be, a concerted effort by NGOs and certain organizations to stop consumers from buying salmon that has been farmed, not just in Norway but in other countries too.

In addition, the media are reporting that there are concerns about a reliance on wild fish in the feed given to salmon, the use of chemicals and fish escapes that introduce negative genetic traits into wild fish populations.

A spokesman for the World Wildlife Fund told the U.K.’s Guardian newspaper that salmon farming has had a bad reputation. A few weeks ago, the newspaper published an article entitled, “Is it OK to eat farmed salmon now?”

According to Martin Jaffa of Callander McDowell, the global salmon farming industry produces 14.8 billion salmon meals every year. “Is it not a bit late to be asking the question whether it is OK to eat farmed salmon now?” he said. “The consumers of 14.8 billion meals clearly don’t think it is a question that needs to be asked, and neither do we.”


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