Thursday, June 09, 2005

Government betrayed public in salmon-cancer scandal

VICTORIA - The B.C. government discovered in March that salmon from a fish farm were contaminated with malachite green, a cancer-causing fungicide.
By the time fisheries ministry tests found the problem, Stolt Sea Farms had already sent about 100 tonnes to stores and restaurants, in Canada, the U.S. and Asia.
But no one from the ministry, or the company, thought that was something you should know about as you shopped for groceries.
The provincial government notified the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. But although federal regulations ban the sale of food products with any malachite green contamination, the agency decided this was only a Class 2 health risk, which meant no public recall was needed. The Class 2 assessment means the agency decided that at worst eating the fish would "lead to temporary or non-life-threatening health consequences, or that the probability of serious adverse consequences is considered remote."
Stolt was told to try and get the salmon back. No one told you anything.
Ultimately about one-third of the fish made it on to people's plates, some 200,000 servings, laced with a carcinogen.
I accept the agency's analysis of the small health risk. While Canada and the U.S. don't allow any malachite green contamination, Japan allows five parts per billion, and the European Union two parts per billion. The highest contamination in the tested fish was 1.3 parts per billion. If you were Swiss, you could be eating more fungicide with every farmed salmon dinner. There was likely no harm done.
Unless you count the damage to the basic trust between citizen and government.
The provincial and federal governments knew that contaminated farmed salmon was on the market. But they chose not to tell you.
We tend to worry that the state will turn into Big Brother in active ways, peering into our lives, telling us what to do, limiting our freedoms.
But Big Brother can crush our basic right to control our lives simply by withholding information.
Lots of people would happily barbecue the contaminated salmon.
But others people spend money on bottled water, and shop out healthy foods. And those people were betrayed by governments that denied them the information they needed to make an informed choice. They ate food that they would never have knowingly consumed.
It's not in the public interest to keep this information secret. You benefit from the facts, and the chance to make your own decisions.
So why the secrecy?
The governments may have placed the interests of the company, or the industry, ahead of the consumer. The provincial Liberals may have recognized that an announcement that contaminated farmed salmon were on the market would hurt their election chances. (They lost every seat with a significant fish farming industry anyway.) And of course incompetence and bad judgment should never ruled out as a cause.
But the end result was that both governments knew people were buying salmon laced with a substance banned because it's a cancer risk.
And they didn't tell you.
I've been a booster of aquaculture. The science I've seen suggests that done right, and properly regulated, fish farms can provide jobs and produce a valuable commodity, without unreasonable consequences. (I expect a beating from Rafe Mair in our Monday morning radio session for that paragraph.)
But the actions of government, and the companies, have made the industry almost impossible to defend.
Stolt is part of the world's largest aquaculture company. Its managers and PR consultants should know that since 1982, and the Tylenol tampering deaths, the correct crisis response for any corporation has been clear. Acknowledge the issue. Tell people what you are doing about it. Err on the side of caution.
Stolt didn't the public. And it still hopes to sell the contaminated fish overseas.
But the real betrayal is by both governments. They knew contaminated fish were being sold, and chose not to tell you.
And that raises the obvious question - how often have governments put the interest of the industry ahead of the public?
Footnote: The industry faces other challenges, over sea lice and the spread of disease to wild stocks. Next week's cabinet shuffle will likely see a new minister on the file, and perhaps a hiving off of the fisheries component of the agriculture, food and fisheries ministry.


Anonymous said...

Paul, I don't even know if you check these comments from time to time.

I want you to know that I admire your work but I cannot get over what appears to be your naivete when it comes to the BC Liberal party.

Have they not made it clear enough over the past 4 years that their first consideration is always going to be the profitability of their supporters?

paul said...

I do check the comments, and the observations have helped shape columns and provided useful tips. (They have also been consistently civil, constructive and informed.)
I take a certain pride in my naivete. And I do believe that MLAs from all aprties run for office with the idea of making things better for their communities.
Mostly I approach the work with the idea that motives are irrelevant, and unknowable, and look at the actions of government. I figure that's what matters to readers.
Paul Willcocks

Anonymous said...

It's anonymous me again.

I'm not talking about motives either. I'm looking at what they've done and drawing conclusions.

There hasn't been one instance I can think of over the past 4 years where corporate interests were made to take a back seat.

Can you think of one?

And almost without exception corporate interests back them with very large amounts of money.