Salmon Lawsuit Highlights
by Judith Blake, Seattle Times staff reporter
It's no news to most people that countless processed foods sold in American grocery stores contain color additives to boost their eye appeal.
But it may have surprised some to learn last week that certain foods — farmed salmon in particular — get a color kick while the creatures are still living, through pigments added to their feed.
Nearly all farmed salmon, experts say, are given the pigments canthaxanthin or astaxanthin, or both, in their feed to make their meat pink.
Though this is legal, it was not widely publicized until a handful of consumers filed national class-action lawsuits last Wednesday in King County Superior Court against three major supermarket chains — Safeway, Kroger and Albertsons — alleging they fail to label farmed salmon as containing color additives.
The lawsuits contend such labeling is required by U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations and implied by Washington's consumer-protection laws. While the suit primarily targets labeling, its filing turns a spotlight on the coloring practice itself, as well as on health questions and the power of color to sell food.
Farmed salmon aren't the only animals chowing down on these pigments. Some farmed rainbow trout also get them in their feed to make their meat pinker; so do chickens, for brighter egg yolks. The FDA refers to the pigments as color additives.
Though the pigments are produced synthetically, the manufacturer, Hoffmann-La Roche, says they are chemically identical to those that wild salmon eat through their diet of tiny crustaceans called krill. Farmed fish, whose feed doesn't contain krill, would have flesh that is variously described as pale pink, whitish or gray — hues that supposedly wouldn't attract shoppers.
The pigments are forms of carotenoids, which scientists say have nutritional value for both humans and animals. As antioxidants, carotenoids are widely believed to have health benefits.
Salmon farmers say they would feed the pigments to the fish as a nutritional boost for reproduction even if pink color were not a goal, but less would be needed.
Some studies have linked high consumption of canthaxanthin to retina damage in humans. Is canthaxanthin a danger to salmon lovers?
William Waknitz, a research fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Manchester, is convinced it's not.
"I don't see it as a health problem," said Waknitz. He calculated that a person would have to consume 24 pounds of salmon a day for weeks to ingest the amount of canthaxanthin cited in the studies.
Dr. Adam Drewnowski, director of the Center for Public Health Nutrition at the University of Washington, said that if he were to worry about seafood-related health issues, he would be more concerned with mercury in some fish (though not salmon), not the color additives.
While any additives in food raise questions, he said, aquaculture provides "cheap salmon" for those who might otherwise be unable to afford it. Noting the selling power of color, he said his own research has shown people tend to believe brightly colored foods are more nutritious.
While he does not see color additives in salmon as a serious health risk, he does believe the fish should be labeled as such. "Labeling makes absolute sense to me because we should have informed consumers," he said.
While not commenting specifically on the lawsuit, the three supermarket chains named in it have said they provide safe, wholesome fish.
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