Contaminants in farmed salmon: Commissioner Byrne's remarks to Parliament

February 12, 2004

Strasbourg, 11 February 2004

Verbatim report of proceedings on 10 February 2004, Part 2

Byrne, Commission. Mr President, the study 'Global Assessment of Organic Contaminants in Farmed Salmon', published on 9 January 2004 in Science magazine, compared the levels of 14 organochlorine contaminants in samples of farmed and wild salmon. Besides dioxins and PCBs, the study reports on the presence of residues of organochlorine pesticides, the use of which has long been prohibited in the EU. This study does not raise new food safety issues as the levels found are consistent with the results from other surveys and from official controls. This does not, however, mean that the presence of these contaminants is not a cause for concern.

As regards dioxins, strict EU maximum levels were adopted in 2001 for dioxins in feed and food, including fish. However, in setting these levels, the Commission had to take into account the reality of the current background contamination of the environment in order not to endanger the food supply. I would remind you that worldwide, only the European Union and Korea have adopted maximum levels for dioxins in feed and food. These maximum levels are part of a comprehensive strategy adopted by the European Commission in 2001 to reduce the presence of dioxins and PCBs in the environment, in feed and in food. The implementation of this strategy would give new impetus to the reduction of the background contamination. As a result, it will be possible to lower progressively the maximum levels to follow this downward trend.

The legislation foresees that, as early as this year, the maximum levels have to be revised to integrate some PCBs with toxicological effects similar to dioxins. Furthermore, it is foreseen that by the end of 2006 the maximum levels will be revised, aiming for a significant reduction. For the other PCBs, the European Food Safety Authority is currently undertaking a risk assessment. The result of this risk assessment is expected to become available by the end of 2004. The Commission will thereafter consider the setting of maximum levels also for these PCBs in feed and food.

The organochlorine pesticides detected in the study published in Science have long been banned in the European Union.

However, their continued presence in fish is due to the fact that they are very persistent compounds, which can still be found in the environment. The European Union has established maximum levels for these pesticides in animal feed, including fish feed. On the basis of updated risk assessments undertaken by the Authority, the Commission will consider whether a revision of the current levels is necessary for the protection of animal and human health. The highest levels of two pesticides - toxaphene and dieldrin - found by the study in salmon feed exceed the maximum levels fixed by the EU.

We have, accordingly, drawn the attention of the Member States to these findings and requested that they submit data from official controls and, if necessary, reinforce those controls.

Finally, I would stress that the levels of dioxins reported in the study are all below the EU maximum levels. Fish - be it farmed or wild - has its place in a well-balanced diet to ensure that consumers continue to benefit from its positive health effects...

Byrne, Commission. Mr President, I should like to respond very briefly to the issues that have been raised. I am happy that it has been acknowledged by Parliament that the Commission responded quickly to this issue and that a clear explanation was given when it first came into the public domain.

I should like to make a clarification statement and to repeat what I said earlier. It would be a mistake to confuse the presence of dioxin and PCBs in the fish, and the presence of pesticides in feed. One questioner suggested that the Commission had made a statement earlier that was different from what is being said now. That interpretation arises from a confusion of what has been said, which is that the dioxin levels are within EU maximum levels, but the pesticides in food are not, and I gave two instances that were above that. That is a question of the levels being above the appropriate levels in the feed rather than in the fish themselves.

In answer to the question I was asked by Mr Ó Neachtain in relation to the joint report that has been furnished by the Irish and United Kingdom authorities, I have to say that report has not reached my desk, nor has it reached my DG. I am, of course, making inquiries about it, but that report may have been on a related issue and sent to a different DG. It is something I will look at if it has been sent to me and if it is relevant to my portfolio.

Finally, on the question of further risk assessments, the European Food Safety Authority is carrying out a risk assessment on the presence of non-dioxin-like PCBs. It is quite clear that my services and the European Food Safety Authority are keeping an eye on this issue.

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