Pew Environment Group Calls for a Crackdown on Unapproved Drug Use by Salmon Farms

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Citing widespread evidence of unapproved drug use on salmon farms, the Pew Environment Group today pressed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to expand testing on farmed salmon imports from Canada, Norway and the United Kingdom (Scotland and Ireland).

In a letter delivered to the acting commissioner of the FDA, Pew warned of the potential environmental threats related to the discharge of these banned drugs into the marine environment and the potential human health risks associated with some of these chemicals in food production.  

The Pew letter also challenges the exception for Maine salmon farming companies to use emamectin benzoate, currently allowed under an Investigational New Animal Drug permit from the FDA. 

These pesticide and antibiotic residues are of concern due to their potential harm to human health and the environment. For example, the pesticide emamectin benzoate, which is used to treat sea lice, is "very toxic to aquatic organisms" and "may cause long-term adverse effects in the environment," according to the manufacturer's safety data. The non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in farmed fish destined for human consumption also raises concerns about the possibility of antibiotic resistant bacterial infections in humans.

Earlier this year through a Freedom of Information Act request, Pew obtained FDA documents revealing that three Chilean salmon farming companies, including the two largest Chilean producers of farmed salmon, used drugs not approved by the U.S. government.  While attention has focused on Chile, the Pew Environment Group now has information showing that drugs unapproved for the U.S. market are also being used on salmon farms in Canada, Norway and Scotland. In 2008, more than half of farmed salmon imported to the U.S. came from those countries.

“It's appropriate that the FDA limits an exporting country such as Chile to those drugs ‘approved' by the FDA/Center for Veterinary Medicine, but exempting certain U.S. producers, such as those in Maine, creates a double standard,” said Andrea Kavanagh, who directs Pew's marine aquaculture campaign.  “The FDA's standards should be universal and enforced accordingly.”

Pew's letter serves as a formal request for additional information on the FDA's stance on the use of “unapproved” drugs in aquaculture.  One issue is whether the FDA will consistently require all companies exporting salmon to the U.S. to adhere to the FDA/Center for Veterinary Medicine Approved Drugs in Aquaculture list; another is how the FDA reconciles its current requirement that Chilean salmon companies use only “approved” drugs in aquaculture with permitting the Maine salmon farming industry to use one of these unapproved drugs, emamectin benzoate.

There is a precedent for increased FDA testing and oversight.  In the summer of 2007, the U.S. took extraordinary measures to limit the import of Chinese seafood following the continued detection of unapproved animal drugs, including fluoroquinolones.

"The agency has made progress in relation to some imported farmed fish,” said Kavanagh. “It is time for the FDA to tackle the outstanding environmental and food safety problems associated with farmed salmon, not just in Chile but also in Norway, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and even right here at home."

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, visit the Salmon Aquaculture Reform campaign.

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