from Sunday Herald, 30 November 2003
Salmon from Scottish fish farms have been banned from entering the United States because they are “filthy”, “insanitary” or contaminated with a bug that can cause fatal infections.
The powerful US government watchdog, the Food and Drug Administration, has this year condemned 27 imports of smoked salmon from leading Scottish companies as unfit for human consumption.
Companies claim the clamp down is forcing them to abandon the multi-million pound US market. “It is a scandal,” said Andy Lane, managing director of Loch Fyne Oysters. “If I could sue, I would.”
In order to protect the health of US consumers, the FDA regularly tests samples of food imports for contamination and decay. If it finds a problem, it rejects the import and publishes details on its website.
An analysis by the Sunday Herald of all the UK food rejected reveals that Scottish salmon is one of the most frequently refused. Since January, 15 shipments of smoked salmon have been turned away because they were contaminated with listeria.
A further nine salmon shipments from Scotland were classified as “insanitary”. According to the FDA, they “may have become contaminated with filth” and “may have been rendered injurious to health”.
Three more salmon shipments were officially defined as “filthy”.
DEFINITIONS USED BY THE US FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION
FILTHY: "The article appears to consist in whole or in part of a filthy, putrid, or decomposed substance or be otherwise unfit for food.
INSANITARY: "The article appears to have been prepared, packed, or held under insanitary conditions whereby it may have become contaminated with filth, or whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health."
LISTERIA: "The article appears to contain Listeria, a poisonous and deleterious substance which may render it injurious to health."
Salmon from seven Scottish companies have been rejected, including some of the most famous names in the business. Loch Fyne Oysters at Cairndow in Argyll had the most shipments rejected – 10 between February and May, six because of listeria contamination.
The company trades on its reputation as a purveyor of high-quality foods, promising that “all dishes are prepared with only the finest and freshest ingredients”. Its salmon come mostly from a farm on Loch Duart in Sutherland, which claims to be environmentally friendly.
Pinneys of Scotland, in Annan, Dumfriesshire, had five exports of smoked salmon from fish farms refused because of listeria contamination. The brand, which is owned by the Uniq convenience food group, holds the Royal warrant to supply smoked salmon to the Queen.
Gourmet’s Choice, in Portsoy, Aberdeenshire, had three shipments of smoked salmon rejected in October because of listeria. And nearby Lossie Seafoods in Buckie, Aberdeenshire, has nine rejections listed by the FDA, though the company says four are duplicated.
The FDA’s tough action has been seized on by the anti-fish farm lobby as evidence that farmed salmon is bad for human health. “The US FDA has discovered what many of us have known all along – that there are Scottish farmed salmon products that might be a health hazard,” said Don Staniford from the Salmon Farm Protest Group.
Staniford said that the FDA’s action was “a devastating blow” for an industry that accounts for 40% of all Scotland’s food exports. “Scottish producers are incapable of meeting US standards, and that’s why they’ve been forced out of the market,” he claimed.
“They are producing second-class farmed salmon, whereas the US is putting consumers first.”
But Staniford’s criticisms, and those of the FDA, were fiercely repudiated by the salmon companies. “No-one in the history of the world has been made ill by listeria in smoked salmon,” claimed Andy Lane of Loch Fyne Oysters.
“It’s a monolithic, insensitive and arrogant regime at the FDA. No other country behaves in that way.” The FDA standards were much too strict and its allegations were “utterly grotesque”, he added.
Loch Fyne Oysters, having fought a long war with the FDA, has now decided to pull out of the US market, losing a growing £40,000 business . But Lane stressed that the company was still successfully exporting salmon to 20 other countries.
He alleged that an FDA “sniff” test of one of his company’s shipments was flawed, because it was designed for shrimps. “It’s prot ectionist. It makes you angry because they are aggressive and obdurate.”
Gourmet’s Choice said US standards were “nigh on impossible” to meet. While the FDA had “zero tolerance” for listeria, European and World Health Organisation guidelines permitted up to 20 microbes per 25 grammes of salmon.
“The US is being over- zealous,” said Terry Curran, the company’s sales director. “We have lost a contract possibly in excess of £2 million .” Gourmet’s Choice has also decided to abandon the US market.
“Listeria can be endemic in salmon,” Curran argued. The only way to ensure bacteria were eliminated would be to irradiate the fish, and he was not keen to adopt that process.
Pinneys insisted that its smoked salmon was produced in line with European regulations. “US standards are technically different and this has led to occasions when some produce has been refused sale in the US on very specific technical grounds,” said a spokeswoman. “ Smoked salmon produced by Pinneys is of the highest standard of safety and quality. Our customers can eat our products with complete confidence.”
Lossie Seafoods, however, took a different line. It accepted that five of its shipments had been destroyed, but pointed out that they were individual sides of salmon sent as gifts which had gone off because they could not be delivered.
The FDA list “gives a false impression” , said export sales director Charlie Devin, who expects the company to send 700 gift packages of salmon to the US this Christmas.
Italy also had zero tolerance for listeria, and Devin predicted other countries would follow suit. “We’ve eliminated it to the best of our ability,” he stated. “At the moment we’re clean.”
The FDA said its standards for salmon were similar to those in Australia, New Zealand, Austria and Italy. Agencies in Canada, Denmark and Britain had also recommended that listeria monocytogenes should be absent in 25g samples.
“The agency doesn’t see a lot of difference in the microbiological requirements in most developed countries,” an FDA spokesman said. “The product is consumed with no further heating and held in refrigerated storage for extended periods.
“It has been implicated in outbreaks of listeriosis, and supports the growth of listeria monocytogenes.”
SCOTTISH FARMED SALMON REJECTED BY THE US FOOD AND DRUG ADMINISTRATION
Company / when / products rejected / reasons given by FDA
Loch Fyne Oysters / Feb-May 2003 / ten exports of smoked salmon / "listeria" (6), "insanitary" (3), "filthy" (1)
Lossie Seafoods / Jan-June 2003 / five exports of smoked salmon / "insanitary" (3), "filthy" (2)
Pinneys / March-June 2003 / five exports of smoked salmon / "listeria" (5)
Gourmet's Choice / October 2003 / three exports of smoked salmon / "listeria" (3)
Four other companies / Jan-Aug 2003 / four exports of smoked salmon / "insanitary" (3), "listeria" (1)
Source: US Food and Drug Administration