Politics of the Plate:
Salmon on Drugs

A new report indicates rampant antibiotic use at Chilean fish farms, which supply most of the U.S.’s farmed salmon.
salmon bumper sticker

Here’s a little tidbit to contemplate the next time you find yourself at the seafood counter in front of an appetizing display of pretty, orange farmed-salmon fillets: In 2007, Chile, then the largest supplier of farmed salmon to the U.S. by a long shot, used more than 385,000 kilograms of antibiotics in its salmon farms. Norway, which produced more than twice as much farmed salmon as Chile, used a fraction of that amount, only 649 kilograms. Looked at another way, Chile used nearly 600 times more antibiotics than Norway.

Those startling numbers were released last week by the environmental group Oceana Chile, which obtained them from the Chilean government.

Even more disquieting, Dave Bard of the Washington, D.C.–based Pure Salmon Campaign, which partners with Oceana, said in an email that the Chilean government’s own records show that “there have been documented uses of at least four antibiotics not included on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Approved Drugs list (for aquaculture) during the past two years.”

Those drugs included oxolinic acid, amoxicillin, erythromycin, and flumequine, all potent antibiotics.

Following critical press coverage last year, SalmonChile, a trade organization, struck back with full-page advertisements in American newspapers claiming, “In the Chilean aquaculture industry, all products used by veterinarians must be registered by the Chilean regulatory institutions. The approval process for those medicines has been accepted worldwide. In addition, antibiotics are prescribed by a veterinarian only when disease is diagnosed and when the health of the fish is compromised.” Given the new information, I’m willing to bet that it’s going to take a lot more than a slick ad campaign to quell the controversy this time around.

Fortunately, there is an easy way to avoid being exposed to this arsenal of medicines: Buy the wild Alaskan salmon currently in season. It’s sustainably fished and way better tasting than the farmed stuff.

I spent some time with Alaskan salmon fishermen earlier this decade. A popular bumper sticker around town read, “Say No to Drugs. Don’t Eat Farmed Fish.” I thought it was sound advice then, and I still do.

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