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Toxic salmon faces EU-wide sales ban
Second cancer alert as surveillance reveals that fish farmers have continued to use known poison to disinfect their eggs
By Severin Carrell

The Independent

11th January 2004

Sales of Scottish salmon could be banned across Europe because of contamination by an illegal and toxic chemical, The Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Safety tests have proved that samples of farmed salmon and trout are tainted by a banned chemical, which can cause cancers and mutations. As a result, the European Commission is to introduce even tougher health limits and is threatening legal action against the UK.

The EC move follows the furious row last week after scientists claimed that Scottish farmed salmon was so toxic that consumers should only eat it three times a year.

Salmon sales slumped after the study - published in the respected US journal Science - said high levels of carcinogenic poly-chlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and dioxins were found in samples of Scottish farmed salmon and fish feed.

The report's health warnings were dismissed by the Food Standards Agency and retailers as inaccurate and based on poor science. The FSA insisted that Scottish salmon, including smoked salmon, is still safe to eat.

However, the FSA admits there are real safety risks over the continuing use of a different chemical in farmed salmon and trout from Britain - a cheap dye called malachite green once routinely used as a fungicide in fish farms. Fears about the toxicity of malachite green are expected to be confirmed next month by US safety experts on the National Toxicity Program. That panel is expected to state - for the first time - that it is a proven carcinogen which causes mutations.

The chemical - traditionally used as a fungicide to "disinfect" fish eggs - was banned for use by fish farmers by the Government more than two years ago because of its suspected toxicity. But routine surveillance checks by the official Veterinary Medicines Directorate have continued to find high levels of the chemical in salmon and trout - fuelling suspicions that fish farmers are using it illegally.

Unlike the controversy over PCBs and dioxins, the Food Standards Agency admits that the continuing discovery of malachite green in fish is a serious problem. "It shouldn't be used and it shouldn't be found," a spokeswoman said.

Several fish farms are under investigation by the VMD, and at least one has had its fish temporarily banned from sale, after repeated traces of malachite green were found in salmon and trout. One fish farmer is facing prosecution.

But under even stricter safety regulations being prepared by the European health commissioner David Byrne, an even larger number of fish farms will face automatic bans across the EU from the end of this year. Dr Byrne is to introduce a far tighter maximum limit for malachite green in December of two microgrammes per kilogram - a level which Scottish and English fish farms have repeatedly breached.

The new restrictions follow earlier warnings from Dr Byrne's officials that Britain could be prosecuted by the EC for infringing existing safety limits, followed by a rolling fine if the toxins continue to be detected. The EU's new safety proposals could be opposed, however, under global trade rules. The plan is being considered by the World Trade Organisation, but unless there is international agreement, major fish-farming nations such as Chile are likely to protest.

Don Staniford, an environmentalist with the Salmon Farm Protest Group, said: "If there are fears about consumer health, these new standards should be enforced right now. It is irrelevant whether farmers are still using it illegally or whether it is residues left in the environment. It should never be found in fish."