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The 20-year-old Scottish salmon scandal

Friday 16 January 2004

Our countryside commentator, John Sheard, reveals that the row over polluted farmed salmon in Scotland could have been nipped in the bud 20 years ago

FIRST it was the roast beef of Olde England that became centre of a world-wide poison food scandal. Last weekend, that was joined by Scottish salmon, another symbol of these islands which once stood for purity, quality and good health.

Today, I can reveal that - like the BSE scandal and the 100-odd CJD deaths which have followed it - the salmon problem could have been nipped in the bud some 20 years ago. If only politicians had listened to their scientific advisers.

And behind both solutions could have been the man whom Government and Whitehall tried to disgrace - the former professor of microbiology at Leeds University, Prof Richard Lacey.

Salmon Scandal

Lacey became a national pariah back in the 1980s for his research into salmonella in eggs, which got farm minister Edwina Curry sacked, and other serious food poisoning epidemics. He was publicly ridiculed when he said that BSE would spread to humans and was eventually manoeuvred out of his university chair.

But very few people know that, before he became involved in public controversy, he sat on one of the Government's key scientific advisory committees and there, 20 years ago, the first evidence was beginning to grow about the pollution and threat to human health of large-scale salmon farming in Western Scotland.

Huge handfuls of highly toxic poisons were being thrown into the open sea to kill sea-lice which, if unchecked, can literally eat a caged salmon alive. Lacey was appalled and asked that serious action should be taken.

Instead, the committee - aware that hundreds of jobs were at stake in an economically depressed area - hushed up the report. Lacey resigned from the committee and that was where his long and bitterly hard career as a whistle-blower began.

Last weekend, the row blew up again after American scientists proved that farmed Scottish salmon was the most polluted in the world. They contain some very nasty substances indeed, like PCBs, dioxins, notorious carcinogens, and dieldrin, which was one of the pesticides which nearly wiped out Britain's birds of prey in the 1960s.

The salmon producers, as one would expect, dismissed the American claims as nonsense. But, more alarmingly, our own Food Standards Agency backed up the fish farmers, saying that the concentrations of these poisons were well within World Health Organisation safety limits.

Now I am not a scientist but I do know - because I have written about this subject many, many times over the years - that a number of top scientists are secretly very worried about the build-up of toxins in the human body over long periods of time.

That substance, dieldrin for instance, was one of three chemicals used in seed dressings on corn crops in the late 1950s and tests had shown that song birds which ate dressed corn were not affected.

It took years to prove that when kestrels, sparrow hawks and other predators ate the songbirds, they had stored dieldrin in their livers and in this concentrated form, the hawks were killed. We came very close then to losing most of our birds of prey. And, according to the Americans, dieldrin is also building up in the livers of farmed salmon.

These facts have been known for almost half a century. In the past twenty years, we have had case after case when human interference in nature's way of producing food has lead to terrible food poisoning tragedies, including many deaths and untold thousands of aborted babies.

Now that brave and dedicated scientists like Richard Lacey have been hounded off the public stage, we have only the Food Standards Agency standing between us and yet another and-made epidemic.

Yet, this week, the FSA was blithely dismissing the US research as scare-mongering. Government scientists said the same about salmonella in eggs and chicken, listeria in soft cheeses, and BSE (or new-variant CJD) in humans.

This complacency terrifies me. Agencies like the FSA were set up to rock the boat, as did the short-lived National Rivers Authority before it made too many waves and was shut down. What more does this country have to suffer before it starts putting the public health before the economic interests of big business?

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