Oprah Fish Scare:

Oprah's Magazine Madly Misled on Mercury in Salmon

by Randy Hartnell
Courtesy of Vital Choice Seafood

We admire Oprah Winfrey immensely, so were disheartened to discover that the April 2005 issue of her “O” magazine ran an article wrongly calling into question the safety of wild salmon. Many of you have called requesting an explanation so we thought we'd share with you our letter to the Oprah magazine editor:

Dear Ms. Gross,

I am writing in response to the April, 2005 article by Daphne Zuniga, titled “My Mercury Poisoning.” While well-intentioned, Ms. Zuniga’s article contained misleading information. Unfortunately, this error disparages the safety of wild Alaskan salmon, which in fact is one of the safest, healthiest fish available to consumers.

The “Go Fish” chart accompanying Ms. Zuniga’s article—which cites Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) as its source—offers advice on how often it is safe to eat various species, based on their average mercury and/or PCB levels.

However, information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. FDA, and respected environmental organizations contradicts the chart’s recommendation to eat salmon (and sardines) no more than once a week. Its recommendation to strictly limit consumption of salmon—with no distinction drawn between wild and farmed fish—implies that all salmon is relatively high in mercury. With regard to wild salmon, this implication does not match the findings of any credible scientific source we can find. Further, the footnote on salmon indicates that it is high in PCBs, when the data show that that characterization applies only to farmed salmon, as discussed below.

The chart accompanying Ms. Zuniga’s article reflects errors in the “Guide to Healthy Fish” chart displayed on the Mercury Action Web site1 operated by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR). The PSR chart asserts that it is not safe to eat more than “1-3 servings per month” of “fresh-frozen” salmon, and makes no distinction between farmed and wild-caught salmon. (While all ocean salmon—wild or farmed—is extremely low in mercury, farmed salmon is unusually high in other toxins: especially PCBs.)

The PSR’s chart—a link to which appears in the “Protecting Yourself” section of the Web version of the article—is even more misleading, since it ranks salmon (generically) as barely better than the most mercury-contaminated species (e.g., swordfish). This damaging assertion is flat wrong.

Despite the anti-salmon implication of the PSR’s Guide to Healthy Fish chart, its Mercury Action Web site offers a link to the US Environmental Protection Agency Web site, whose advice2 contradicts the PSR’s negative assertion: “Eat up to 12 ounces (2 average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury. Five of the most commonly eaten fish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.”

The US Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) seafood advisory3 also lists “fresh/frozen salmon” among the species “lowest in mercury.” In fact, the mean mercury levels shown for salmon are the lowest in the FDA’s “lowest in mercury” category, and are matched only by hake and tilapia.

Test data4 compiled by the three federal agencies that monitor mercury levels in fish—EPA, FDA, and NOAA—show that the average mercury content in salmon is very low. For example, the average mercury content of tuna steaks is listed as 0.417 parts per million (PPM), while ocean salmon contains only 0.008 PPM. The combined government figures show that, on average, mercury levels in salmon are only two percent of the levels found in tuna steaks. In other words, tuna steaks contain, on average, 50 times more mercury than ocean salmon does. The only exceptions are salmon from the Great Lakes, which, on average, contain 21 times more mercury than ocean salmon.

Like these federal agencies, the Environmental Working Group (EWG)—a leading critic of weak government efforts to limit mercury pollution—considers wild Alaskan salmon safe to eat on a frequent basis. Based on US government tests, EWG lists wild Pacific Salmon among the species lowest in mercury5 and says, "The risk of mercury in salmon appears to be minimal."

However, while both farmed and wild salmon are relatively low in mercury, nutrition-savvy physicians like Nicholas Perricone, M.D., Christiane Northrup, M.D., Andrew Weil M.D., and Stephen Pratt, M.D.—all of whom have appeared on Oprah’s television show—recommend wild salmon for the myriad health benefits attributed to its very high levels of omega-3 fatty acids. These well-informed physicians favor wild salmon over farmed salmon for two reasons:

1. Farmed salmon contains levels of toxic industrial pollutants called PCBs that are five to 40 times higher than those found in any other commercial protein source. While credible scientists downplay the risk presented by the levels of PCBs in farmed salmon, a 2002 study by Canadian scientists reported the sobering fact that farmed salmon contain significantly higher levels of all the chemical contaminants found in ocean fish6-8. Accordingly, the non-profit organization Environmental Defense ranks farmed salmon as less safe than albacore tuna—a food relatively high in mercury—in terms of the amounts considered safe to eat 9. (I should note that, unlike standard commercial albacore, young, low-weight, troll-caught Pacific albacore tuna are relatively low in mercury.)

2. While wild salmon and farmed salmon are both rich in beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, farmed salmon are much higher in total fat. This is because farmed salmon also contain high levels of heart-unhealthy saturated fat and pro-inflammatory omega-6s.

I appreciate Ms. Zuniga’s effort to warn consumers, especially nursing mothers and women of child-bearing age, of the dangers of mercury in seafood. But U.S. health authorities and knowledgeable doctors urge Americans to eat more omega-3 fatty acids, whose benefits to heart health, brain function, and child development are undisputed. It would be a shame were your readers to avoid one of the healthiest fish in the sea—wild salmon—because of an inadvertent error.

It is also unfortunate that all who make their living harvesting and marketing wild salmon should suffer because one of the most widely read, credible magazines in America was mislead into wrongly disparaging the fruits of their labor. Salmon fisherman in Alaska risk their lives to harvest one of the healthiest foods left on earth, and can ill afford unwarranted damage to wild salmon markets already under siege by nutritionally and environmentally inferior farmed salmon.

On behalf of the wild salmon industry and all Oprah readers who look to you for sound advice with regard to their health and well-being, I respectfully request that you print a clarification in your next issue, and correct the article on the Oprah.com Web site. This is what I suggest:

  • Please revise the “Go Fish” chart using information from EWG, FDA, and EPA, which should lead you to move wild salmon to the “Enjoy (up to two servings a week)” category. (In fact, the data suggest that it is safe and smart to eat wild salmon even more frequently.)
  • The chart listing for salmon under “Show Restraint” should specify “Farmed salmon,” rather than “Salmon (especially farmed)”.
  • In the “Protecting Yourself” portion of the article, I would remove all mention of and links to PSR and its Mercury Action Web site, since its information is inaccurate. Instead, I suggest that you link to the EWG Web site (http://www.ewg.org/reports/brainfood/sidebar.html). You could also link to the relevant FDA (http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~frf/sea-mehg.html) and EPA (http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fishadvice/advice.html) Web pages.

There is nothing more important to health than proper nutrition, so it is disheartening to see wide dissemination of inaccuracies that wrongly discourage frequent consumption of a food (wild salmon) whose safety and broad array or health benefits are well documented in the scientific literature. You can find many links to sound information about the safety and health benefits of wild salmon on our Web site at http://www.vitalchoice.com/purity.cfm and http://www.vitalchoice.com/news.cfm.

Thank you for your attention and consideration.


Randy Hartnell, President
Vital Choice Seafood

Editor's note: We consider organic whole foods from both plant and animal kingdoms to be a major key to superior health. We also think it's terribly important to eat fish at least twice a week to get the essential fatty acids. Here at our house, we only eat wild Alaskan salmon and other wild seafoods from our friends at Vital Choice. Click here to visit Vital Choice Seafood.


1. PSR/ARHP Guide to Healthy Fish. Accessed online April 5, 2005 at http://www.mercuryaction.org/

2. What You Need to Know about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish. Accessed online April 5, 2005 at http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fishadvice/advice.html

3. Mercury Levels in Commercial Fish and Shellfish. Accessed online April 5, 2005 at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~frf/sea-mehg.html

4. Brain Food: What women should know about mercury contamination of fish. Accessed online April 5, 2005 at http://www.ewg.org/reports_content/brainfood/brainfood.pdf

5. EWG’s Fish List: What Women Should Know About Mercury In Fish. Accessed online April 5, 2005 at http://www.ewg.org/reports/brainfood/sidebar.html

6. Easton MD, Luszniak D, Von der GE. Preliminary examination of contaminant loadings in farmed salmon, wild salmon and commercial salmon feed. Chemosphere. 2002 Feb;46(7):1053-74.

7. Jacobs M, Ferrario J, Byrne C. 2002a. Investigation of polychlorinated dibenzo-p-dioxins, dibenzo-p-furans and selected coplanar biphenyls in Scottish farmed Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar). Chemosphere. 2002 Apr;47(2):183-91.

8. Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). 1999. Summary report of contaminant results in fish feed, fishmeal and fish oil. Accessed online July 21, 2003 at http://www.inspection.gc.ca/english/anima/feebet/dioxe.shtml.

9. Consumption Advisories: Fish to Avoid. Accessed online July 21, 2003 at http://www.oceansalive.org/eat.cfm?subnav=healthalerts

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