Leslie Brenner, You May be Skinny but You Don’t Know Much About Atlantic Salmon

Dean Fearing gets a fishing lesson from Steve Connolly Seafood Company's senior buyer, and my teacher, Robert Chandler.

Leslie “Catch a Falling Star” Brenner reviews Preston’s this week. She makes some good points about the restaurant promoting such dishes as onion rings as “superfood” for its “antioxidants, fiber and/or vitamins [that] are especially health promoting and disease-preventing.” (That is the stupidest idea for a restaurant since We Oui.)

Silly gimmicks on Preston’s menu aside, La Brener, the newest “skinny bitch” in town, goes on to put her tiny foot in her big mouth. She makes a sweeping statement about farm-raised Atlantic salmon being bad and backs it up with a 5-year old study. Hear her roar:

“But it’s either disingenuous or naive to trumpet the health benefits of farmed Atlantic salmon, which Preston’s also gives an S. Yes, there are health-promoting omega-3 fatty acids in all salmon. But a widely publicized 2005 Cornell University study concluded that “consumption of farmed Atlantic salmon may pose health risks that detract from the beneficial effects of fish consumption.” That’s because farmed salmon bio-accumulate contaminants including “PCBs, dioxins, toxaphene, and dieldrin, which have been associated with a variety of cancer and noncancer health effects, the latter including adverse neurobehavioral and immune effects.”

Not so fast, missy. Some of the best farm-raised salmon in the world comes from the Bay of Fundy in the North Atlantic. The fish are caged in low density pens and occupy about 3% of the volume of the pens (one of the lowest in the world) so they swim freely while at the same time lessening environmental impact. They are raised using a three bay growing system where one is used for smolts, the second for grow-out, and the third left out of production so the bottom recovers naturally. The fish are fed a diet high in both protein and fat and the feed is only about 20% fish with the balance being primarily vegetable proteins. Salmon cages are placed in areas with high water flow so the fish are constantly swimming, getting the exercise that develops the muscular fish that give the optimal eating quality.

How do I know all of this? I graduated from Steve Connolly Seafood “Seafood School for Chefs” last summer. And I don’t want people (or chefs!) in Dallas to read “farm-raised” on a menu and assume it is bad. Ask your server or chef where the product comes from before you make a decision. If the chef doesn’t know, order pasta.

Update: I just spoke with a marine biologist. He told me news stories slamming farm-raised salmon appear almost every year around this time. Why? Because it’s time for wild salmon to hit the market. The folks in the salmon business in Alaska are Slick Willy’s. Why not take aim at the competition—farm-raised is certainly less expensive.

“Biologists are starving,” he says. “They will whore themselves out for grant money and will guide their research in any direction to get future grants.” He was familiar with the study sited by Brenner. “She drank the Kool-Aid,” he said. “If someone is looking for faults, there is plenty of funding to find them.” I love Kool-Aid. Cherry. With vodka.

34 comments on “Leslie Brenner, You May be Skinny but You Don’t Know Much About Atlantic Salmon

  1. Here’s another five year old study for you. J. Hellou et al, “Presence and distribution of PAH, PCB and DDE in feed and sediments under salmon aquaculture cages in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada,” Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems, Vol. 15, chapter 4 (2005).

  2. I would eat Pacific Keta salmon before I would any Atlantic salmon. OK, maybe not, but most Pacific Salmon are much tastier.

    Unknown to many people, Lake Superior is a haven for Coho and Chinook. Our Greatest Lake is cold, clean and clear, and it is much better for these fish than the nasty Atlantic, the cesspool of oceans.

  3. but the bay of fundy salmon still doesnt taste as good as the wild pacific salmon and we proved that at the salmon challenge at tj’s

  4. tj’s has no interest in getting between a leslie and nancy. but we tend to agree with nancy’s assertion. Bay of fundy salmon is generally considered to be the finest atlantic salmon in the world. the bay of fundy is the world’s largest natural tidal poll…more water goes in and out in one tidal cycle than the combined sums of the freshwater rivers of the world. this tidal activity keeps the pens really clean.

    you can’t paint all farm raised fish with one brush. its like saying that the chicken you get at the mansion is the same as pilgrim’s because they were both raised on a farm. there are great sustainable aqua farms and awful aquafarms.

    i wouldn’t touch chilean farm raised salmon on a bet. but bay of fundy is fantastic. rob you are correct it did not defeat the wild salmon at our blind tasting last year. it came in 3rd. but we were all surprised how close a 3rd it came in when we added up the points.

    (and there are unsustainable fishing operations who catch wild fish too…just cause its wild doesn’t mean its good. go catch some wild fish in white rock and file a report)

    we have Columbia River spring salmon in tj’s this weekend. first of the wild pacific spawning season.

  5. The paper Brenner cited was peer-reviewed and published in Science, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in the world. Funding came from the Pew Charitable Trusts. The study involved testing of approximately two metric tons of salmon obtained at wholesale from eight major farming regions (northern and southern hemispheres) and at retail from 16 major cities in North America (in seven states, plus DC) and Europe.

    If you want to discredit that study, you’re going to have to do better than cite fishmongers and an anonymous “marine biologist.”

    Advantage, Brenner.

  6. fishy-

    the amount of conflicting info on seafood will make you dizzy. i can show you two reports on methylmercury in fish that are both scientific as can be, accredited by lots of top scientists…and say the exact opposite thing!

    the study did recommend chilean farmed salmon as their top choice, which leads me to believe that its a little outdated. 2009 saw a devastating outbreak in the chilean pens and no one is suggesting to eat that now.

    look, aquafarms can have legit risks associated with them. no doubt about it. and in general, we don’t suggest eating farm salmon in a restaurant if you don’t know where its from.

    but i think the bay of fundy salmon shouldn’t be lumped with all “farmed atlantic salmon”. the tidal activity in the bay of fundy is a game changer.

  7. Tide waters are fine and dandy, Jon, but the study suggested that the primary contributor to the toxicity of the farmed Atlantic salmon wasn’t the water, but the feed. Some industry groups in Nova Scotia say they’re responding to that, upping the amount of vegetable-based feed. Until there are new peer-reviewed studies showing that it’s resulting in lower toxicity, though, there’s no basis for assuming anything has changed.

    For now, the only groups arguing for the safety and sustainability of farmed Atlantic salmon are those who profit from its sale.

  8. Jon,
    Are you a provider of Fundy salmon and can you define “scientific as can be” and “accredited by lots of top scientists”?

    BTW…TJs rocks!

  9. NN Rocks! Fishy (aka La Brener) got her cage rattled today. Go Nancy! This is classic!!

  10. The point is, this place, Preston’s, should be ignored.

    Brenner’s tone is too caustic. Would fit better in the Health and Human Services regime in DC. And probably better job prospects than Belo can provide.

  11. this is an interesting discussion. it’s good friday, a huge day for a seafood market, so i won’t be by my computer with real time answers. here are a few response. feel free to email me as well.

    you can google up reports that suggest a broad range of answers. a 2008 report on canadian farms (again, i do not lump bay of fundy with all farm salmon, that’s like saying cadillac escalade and ford focus are both “american” cars) suggests that while farm salmon can have higher levels of PCB, both are well below dangerous levels. the FDA seems to be in this camp. which renders the debate almost moot. are you more likely to be hit by lightning or eaten by a shark?

    others would argue that report was funded by the farm salmon industry (see fishy’s comment above) and say that renders the study irrelevant.

    repeat: you can find scientific data that supports either side (although i’m not sure this conversation only has 2 sides) and you can find someone with something to gain funding any study. whole foods spends a lot of money to make sure you are scared shitless to eat anything they didn’t bless…i guess their cupcakes won’t give you heart disease.

    that’s how studies get done.

    and we are just discussing one very specific contaninmant: PCB’s. for instance we aren’t talking about mercury. the mercury reports don’t really differentiate farm v. wild salmon, just putting salmon on the “good” list (sword, tilefish, mackerel & shark are potentially high in mercury)

    William Harris, Director of Metabolism & Nutrition Research, Univ of South Dakota, says “The benefits of eating fish far outweigh any theoretical cancer risk form contaninmants.”

    so does that mean eat whatever fish you want every day? probably not.

    what’s the common sense middle ground?

    in several studies the FDA & EPA suggest eating 2-3 servings of fresh fish a week. that is the range they seem to suggest is the amount that balances the overwhelming health benefits of eating fresh fish and the possible health risks of contaminants.

    my UNscientific opinion is that if you use common sense and eat balanced meals, making fresh fish a part of your diet, you are fine.

    here is a fun game. everyone list their last meal. then we’ll post the scientific studies that show what you just ate is going to kill you.

    the joy of being the omnivore at the top of the food chain is getting to be picky.

    limestar – fishy doesn’t strike me as being LB. let’s not toss out accusations.

  12. I always thought there was something a little “Fishy” about Leslie Brenner. Now I know what it is!

  13. If there wasn’t farmed salmon, we’d have many people who simply couldn’t afford to eat it. There is simply not enough wild salmon to feed the consumption market of the world. And we would have people screaming about a depleted wild resource.

    Chile has suffered significantly from poor farming controls, and I think the fishing industry in other areas took note of the many years of recovery it is still taking to get their waters healthy.

    We generally don’t ask our other proteins to be “wild” (well, some do), just free of contaminants, with minimal impact to the environment. And let us not forget that “wild” food comes with it’s own cautions of who is doing the catching, storing and shipping of the product.

  14. So Nancy, did you go back to lurk at the DMN and see the back story to Preston’s in which it is noted that the salmon is not from the Bay of Fundy? Sounds like someone charged ahead with a story without knowing all the facts. Sorry, but I would agree with peer reviewed science journals rather than an unnamed marine biologist and a fish huckster who may or may not have a financial interest in getting his opinions to you. I’m just curious as to why you feel the need to stir stuff up like this? Are you bored, or just jealous? In any event, it’s not very becoming of you, and personal shots like this should be beneath you.

  15. I catch my salmon at Sam’s Club after repeated attempts to raise them in my hot tub fell short of expectations.

  16. Finn, I don’t think it was right of Leslie to present one side of the story in a restaurant review where there is limited space. She called the chef and basically told him he was selling crap. She writes, “I asked him [chef]about his use of farmed salmon, and he said he wasn’t aware of the health dangers. (Later he e-mailed to tell me he’ll be switching to wild salmon when the season starts next month.) That isn’t her job. IMO, she should have asked him where he buys his salmon and instead of insinuating that is it all bad, maybe said there is good and bad. What will he buy when wild salmon season is over? Anyway, the problem is complicated, but chefs need to know the source of what they serve. Especially in a restaurant that is promoting the nutritional qualities of food. She got him good on that and I applaud her loudly.

  17. Hey Finn, if you don’t have the balls to identify yourself then you don’t get to go around lecturing other people.

  18. The debate is over and the science is settled – restaurants can buy farm salmon credits from my hedge fund and claim that it is wild salmon on the menu. Problem solved.

  19. What will he buy when wild salmon season is over? Only in Dallas would a paid food writer ask a question like that.

  20. if there is a “bottom line” here, i think its that farm raised fish shouldn’t be classified all as “bad”. there are great sustainable concsious aquafarms and lousy ones.

    for those that want to know what TJ’s has to gain from convincing you that some farm raised fish is good, the answer is…NOTHING.

    i would MUCH rather you by today’s 37.99/lb Columbia River Wild Springer King and the 13.99/lb Bay of Fundy Farm Salmon.

    happy easter to all. i’m glad that seafood sparks a debate…it means you all care about seafood and that’s great!

  21. i meant to say:

    i would MUCH rather you by today’s 37.99/lb Columbia River Wild Springer King than the 13.99/lb Bay of Fundy Farm Salmon

  22. This could have been a good discussion, but for the personal, attacking nature of Nancy’s post here. Both the Eats Blog and this blog post a lot of good (and entertaining) information, so this sort of snide one-upmanship (all too common in today’s internet) is wholly unnecessary.

  23. sorry I’m late to the conversation, but…

    jonfromtjs: I’m not familiar with all of the literature, and perhaps it’s true that you can find peer reviewed work stating both sides, but this paper (in a top-tier journal):

    A global assessment of salmon aquaculture impacts on wild salmonids.
    Ford JS, Myers RA.
    PLoS Biol. 2008 Feb;6(2):e33.

    looks at the correlation between salmon farming and the viability of wild salmon stocks. It controls the experiment by looking at different wild stocks in the same regions that are either exposed to farmed salmon (ie, they swim close by the pens), or not. I haven’t read the work in detail, but there is a pretty clear trend (especially in the Bay of Fundy) suggesting that wild stocks exposed to farmed salmon are dying off more rapidly than their non-exposed counterparts. This was published in 2008. Of course, I have no idea if the authors or funding agencies have a specific agenda…

    I applaud the Bay of Fundy salmon growers for their progressive practices – low density pens, etc. But how long have they been doing this, and where’s the evidence that the problem (minimizing impact on wild stocks) is solved by these changes?

    Also, until MOST farmed salmon is sustainable and low-impact, I think it’s better to be critical of the farmed product as a whole rather than risking the impression that farming is OK. Consider the case of chilean seabass/patagonian toothfish, where a SINGLE fishery has been declared sustainable by the MSC – as a result I keep running into people who think that chilean seabass is sustainably harvested now. Wrong. But the points are well taken that: 1) there are better choices out there, and 2) it’s really hard to figure out which ones they are, whether they are actually better or not, and if that’s what you’re actually getting when you purchase fish.

  24. Tomas, it still is a good discussion. But hey, it’s nice to have someone like yourself come in and tell everyone else how they should behave. Of course, it would be even nicer if you didn’t do so anonymously. Meanwhile, you oughta find yourself a hobby. That way you wouldn’t have to suffer through the indignities of today’s Internet.

  25. Thank you Nancy for pointing this out- my boyfriend is an avid fisherman who told me exactly what the marine biologist said: these stories are concocted every year, and not just about salmon but about a variety of fish.