RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
FDA lab tests have found no melamine in farm fish from Washington state. Melamine is the toxic chemical linked to the recent pet-food scare. It also turned up in some of the commercial feed used at fish farms. Now government has show the fish is safe.
But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle, fish farmers are struggling to improve their product's image.
MARTIN KASTE: It's harvest day at the American Gold Seafood Company salmon farm in Puget Sound. As greedy eyed sea lions look on, the harvest boat pulls up to the floating fish pens and drops in a vacuum hose.
Thousands of fat Atlantic salmon are sucked up and sent flopping down plastic chutes, where their funneled face first into a waiting contraption. It delivers a pneumatic whack on the head and a blade to the heart. Manager Rob Miller is proud of this operation.
Mr. ROB MILLER (Manager, American Gold Seafood Company): The fish are stunned, bled, and chilled in two hours, then they're at the processing plant. I mean, within 12 hours, we can have fresh fillets ready to go.
KASTE: Farm salmon is cheap and it's what most Americans eat. But it can also be controversial. Environmentalists don't like the pollution from the pens, and organic-minded consumers turn up their noses at what they perceived as inferior flavor. So companies like this one have been trying to develop a new category, something they call natural farmed salmon. The difference, Miller says, is in the feeds.
Mr. MILLER: Yeah, the feed. It's going out of this one-time hopper.
(Soundbite of machine)
KASTE: He turns on a machine that sprays pellets out over the water. They're dime-sized, brown, and smell vaguely fishy.
Mr. MILLER: In the natural feed there is no land-animal protein. So all the protein sources come from either vegetable or fish.
KASTE: The thinking is, since wild salmon eat fish, then maybe farm salmon should eat feed that's made from fish. Still, these feed pellets are not exactly 100 percent natural. It turns out that one of the brands used here may have contained melamine. FDA tests show the fish themselves are clean, but critics of fish farming say the melamine scare should be taken as a warning. Andrea Kavanaugh directs the National Environmental Trust's Pure Salmon Campaign.
Ms. ANDREA KAVANAUGH (Director, Pure Salmon Campaign, National Environmental Trust): The important part of this is the feed process, right. Because since we're industrializing the whole process of creating fish feed, there's lots and more opportunity for contaminants or problems to enter into the system.
KASTE: Kavanaugh does not oppose fish farms per se. She says they're necessary to relieve pressure on the over-fished oceans. She just wants tighter environmental standards. The problem is there are no government rules for organic farmed salmon, and she laughs at the industry's use of the natural label.
Ms. KAVANAUGH: I think that you can have a better, more sustainable, environmentally friendly farm salmon, but it's not natural.
KASTE: Back in Puget Sound, Rob Miller readily admits that natural is a squishy concept.
Mr. MILLER: This is just kind of a diet that we made up, because there's no criteria for what should be in the natural organic diets.
KASTE: But he says it's not the company's fault that there are no standards. And for those purists who insist that the only solution is to eat nothing but wild salmon, he likes to point out that many wild salmon start their lives in state hatcheries. And some of those hatcheries, it now turns out, also bought the suspect Canadian fish food.
Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
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