Dioxins in U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish

Dioxins in U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish
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Feed contaminated with toxic pollutants thought to originate from sewer sludge fed to chickens and fish results in human dioxin exposure through poultry, eggs, and catfish.

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Dioxins are highly toxic pollutants that accumulate in tissue fat. Almost all dioxins found in humans who aren’t working in toxic waste dumps or something are believed to come from food, especially meat, milk, and fish, which account for probably about 95% of human exposure. We tend to only hear about it in the news, though, when there’s some mass poisoning.

In 1957, for example, millions of chickens began dying, and it was blamed on toxic components in certain feed fats. Factory farming was taking off, and the industry needed cheap feed to fatten up the birds, and ended up using a toxic fleshing grease from hide stripping operations in the leather industry that were using dioxin-containing preservatives. A subsequent outbreak in ‘69 resulted from a pipe mix-up at a refinery that was producing both pesticides and animal feed.

In the 1990s, a supermarket survey found the highest concentrations of dioxins in farm-raised catfish. The source of dioxins was determined to be the feed, but that’s surprising, since catfish aren’t fed a lot of animal fat. In fact, that’s one of the reasons people eat catfish; they’re so low on the food chain. Turns out it was dioxin-contaminated clay added to the feed as an anticaking agent, which may have originally come from sewage sludge. The same contaminated feed was fed to chickens, so what may have started out in sewage sludge ended up on the plates of consumers in the form of farm-raised catfish and chicken.

How widespread of a problem did it become? Five percent of U.S. poultry production–that’s people eating hundreds of millions of contaminated chickens. And if it’s in the chickens, it’s in the eggs. Elevated dioxin levels in chicken eggs too. When the source of the feed contamination was identified, the USDA estimated that less than 1% of animal feed was contaminated, but 1% of egg production means over a million eggs a day. But the catfish were the worst. More than a third of all U.S. farm-raised catfish were found contaminated with dioxins, thanks to that ball clay. So the FDA requested that ball clay not be used in animal feeds. They even asked nice. Dear producer or user of clay products in animal feeds, continued exposure to elevated dioxin levels in animal feed increases the risk of adverse health effects in those consuming animal-derived food products, so we are recommending that the use of ball clay in animal feeds be discontinued. They look forward to the industry’s cooperation.

So how cooperative did the industry end up being? Half a billion pounds of catfish continued to be churned out of US fish farms every year but only recently did the government go back and check. Published in 2013, samples of catfish were collected from all over the country. Dioxins were found in 96% of samples tested. Yeah, but just because catfish are bought in the U.S. doesn’t mean they came from the U.S. And indeed some of the catfish were imported from China or Taiwan, but they were found to be 10 times less contaminated. And indeed, when they checked the feed fed to U.S. catfish, more than half were contaminated, and so it seems likely that mined clay products are still being used in U.S. catfish feeds. Even just small amounts of mineral clays added to fish feeds together with the fact that catfish can be bottom-feeders may lead to higher than acceptable dioxin residues in the final catfish products. Maybe the government should ask nicely again and wait another sixteen years to retest.

The Institute of Medicine suggests strategies to reduce dioxin intake exposure, such as trimming the fat from meat, poultry, and fish and avoiding the recycling of animal fat into gravy, but if almost all dioxin intake comes from animal fat then eating a more plant-based diet could wipe out about 98% of exposure. Thus a vegetarian diet or even just eating more plants might have previously unsuspected health advantages along with the more commonly recognized cardiovascular benefits and decreased cancer risk.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Alan Wolf via Flickr.

Dioxins are highly toxic pollutants that accumulate in tissue fat. Almost all dioxins found in humans who aren’t working in toxic waste dumps or something are believed to come from food, especially meat, milk, and fish, which account for probably about 95% of human exposure. We tend to only hear about it in the news, though, when there’s some mass poisoning.

In 1957, for example, millions of chickens began dying, and it was blamed on toxic components in certain feed fats. Factory farming was taking off, and the industry needed cheap feed to fatten up the birds, and ended up using a toxic fleshing grease from hide stripping operations in the leather industry that were using dioxin-containing preservatives. A subsequent outbreak in ‘69 resulted from a pipe mix-up at a refinery that was producing both pesticides and animal feed.

In the 1990s, a supermarket survey found the highest concentrations of dioxins in farm-raised catfish. The source of dioxins was determined to be the feed, but that’s surprising, since catfish aren’t fed a lot of animal fat. In fact, that’s one of the reasons people eat catfish; they’re so low on the food chain. Turns out it was dioxin-contaminated clay added to the feed as an anticaking agent, which may have originally come from sewage sludge. The same contaminated feed was fed to chickens, so what may have started out in sewage sludge ended up on the plates of consumers in the form of farm-raised catfish and chicken.

How widespread of a problem did it become? Five percent of U.S. poultry production–that’s people eating hundreds of millions of contaminated chickens. And if it’s in the chickens, it’s in the eggs. Elevated dioxin levels in chicken eggs too. When the source of the feed contamination was identified, the USDA estimated that less than 1% of animal feed was contaminated, but 1% of egg production means over a million eggs a day. But the catfish were the worst. More than a third of all U.S. farm-raised catfish were found contaminated with dioxins, thanks to that ball clay. So the FDA requested that ball clay not be used in animal feeds. They even asked nice. Dear producer or user of clay products in animal feeds, continued exposure to elevated dioxin levels in animal feed increases the risk of adverse health effects in those consuming animal-derived food products, so we are recommending that the use of ball clay in animal feeds be discontinued. They look forward to the industry’s cooperation.

So how cooperative did the industry end up being? Half a billion pounds of catfish continued to be churned out of US fish farms every year but only recently did the government go back and check. Published in 2013, samples of catfish were collected from all over the country. Dioxins were found in 96% of samples tested. Yeah, but just because catfish are bought in the U.S. doesn’t mean they came from the U.S. And indeed some of the catfish were imported from China or Taiwan, but they were found to be 10 times less contaminated. And indeed, when they checked the feed fed to U.S. catfish, more than half were contaminated, and so it seems likely that mined clay products are still being used in U.S. catfish feeds. Even just small amounts of mineral clays added to fish feeds together with the fact that catfish can be bottom-feeders may lead to higher than acceptable dioxin residues in the final catfish products. Maybe the government should ask nicely again and wait another sixteen years to retest.

The Institute of Medicine suggests strategies to reduce dioxin intake exposure, such as trimming the fat from meat, poultry, and fish and avoiding the recycling of animal fat into gravy, but if almost all dioxin intake comes from animal fat then eating a more plant-based diet could wipe out about 98% of exposure. Thus a vegetarian diet or even just eating more plants might have previously unsuspected health advantages along with the more commonly recognized cardiovascular benefits and decreased cancer risk.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Katie Schloer.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Alan Wolf via Flickr.

Doctor's Note

This is a good illustration of how we can’t necessarily rely on regulators to protect our families’ health. More on dietary dioxins and what we can do about it in Dioxins in the Food Supply and Counteracting the Effects of Dioxins Through Diet.

Even wild fish are exposed to industrial pollutants spewed into our waterways. See, for example:

Farmed fish is the worst, though: Farmed Fish vs. Wild-Caught.

Other pollutants in our food supply and how to avoid them:

Though the best way to detox is not to tox in the first place, our bodies can eventually get rid of much of the toxin load:

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

14 responses to “Dioxins in U.S. Farm-Raised Catfish

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  1. That the FDA does not simply order industrial meat producers to desist from using dioxin contaminated materials from animal feed is absurd. The deliberate introduction of a known human carcinogens into the food supply should be a prosecutable offense.




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  2. In neither the video transcript nor the 2013 article’s abstract (I did not elect to pay $46 for the full text) did I see mention of the level of dioxins in the catfish — only that dioxins were found. The dose makes the poison, yes? So this alarm could be misleading — I’m NOT saying that it IS misleading.




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  3. This is the source of McDonald’s and other fish sandwiches. when I would get some junk food I used to think it was the healthier choice over the burgers, but it’s apparently very dangerous. Preaching to the choir, but it’s turning out the US food industry is untrustworthy.




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    1. Does it seem like the US is Europe’s sweat house, kind of like China is the world’s sweat house. In Europe they have much stricter standards and more rights for people, and somehow in the US everything is geared towards grinding down and kicking to the curb anyone that is not connected to an already existing power source and paying rent to it … and we call that Capitalism to justify it.




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    2. Actually industry, food or otherwise, is very trust worthy. They can always be trusted to maximize profits. Maximizing shareholder value is in fact the legal obligation of the officers of a corporation, and they can be sued if they make decisions that reduce shareholder value. So McDonald’s would not be meeting their obligations to their shareholders if they spent more than they are legally required to to make sure that the food they serve is safe and healthy.

      Once we realize that corporations will never voluntarily and especially unilaterally do anything that would reduce profits, then we can stop vilifying them and start looking at them as the very useful, but dangerous tool that they are. When we do that then we will understand that we have to put safeguards in place to protect society from the dangerous aspects of unfettered corporations so we can safely benefit from their strengths. An analogy is corporations are like a chainsaw. A very useful tool, but without knowledge of proper operation and protective gear, it can also be very dangerous even life-threatening one. And certainly nobody in their right mind would just turn one on and let it run loose. Sadly that is exactly what the current crop of small government politicians have been doing and want to do more of added and abetted in this case by the chainsaw itself.




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  4. If you like to eat fish, opt from among the many marvelous vegan seafood options. Affordable, convenient and delicious, they’re better for us, for the animals, and for the environment. Links to recipes, products, and more are on the Vegan Seafood Resources page of FishFeel.org




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  5. How can it be that we get these almost daily revelations from multiple sources about how little people in charge of the food industry, but it also carries over to other industries, seem to care about their people, their animals, their land, their air, their water, and their customers? If this is the perfect capitalist system then something is wrong with capitalism or something is wrong with the people who decide where capitalism goes and how it changes.




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    1. The issue is that capitalism does one thing and only one thing, maximize profits. Laissez-faire free-marketers take it as an axiom that allowing the Market to operate unfettered will always arrive at the optimum solution to any problem. The trouble is that the only thing that a free-market has to optimize is profits. It has no mechanism to optimize other things like social welfare or employee pay or anything else save when paying attention to those things increases profits. One prime way to increase profits is to reduce costs. It is how we wound up with the whole factory farming system in the first place. It doesn’t matter ultimately whether ways of reducing costs or increasing yield (two sides of the same coin) are ethical, moral, good for customers, workers, animals or the environment because if one producer accepts higher costs or lower yields to do it the right way they will be punished by the free market because another producer who isn’t bothered by the fact that he is poisoning his customers will take business away with lower prices. This is why pleading with industry to voluntarily do the right thing will never work, because the free market by its very nature makes sure that it can’t work.

      The only thing that will work is to make those hidden societal costs visible to the profit motive of producers either through regulations or penalties that apply equally to all producers. When those costs are visible, then the free market system can optimize costs within the new limits. But it has to be equal and it has to be credibly and consistently enforced. Sadly in today’s hyper-lobbying environment the big players with money and influence to throw around are always looking for ways to sneak out of the regulatory system, or through “small government” legislatures and regulators, eviscerate the regulatory system entirely.

      With respect to today’s topic, the only way that catfish will ever be free of dioxins is if an upper limit on the amount of dioxin in fish and fee is set and constantly checked with strong penalties for violations. Until that happens dioxin laced feed will continue to be fed if it increases profits.




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      1. I think you are being a bit too conventional in your statement that capitalism “maximizes profits”. The thing about capitalism is suppose to be that it rewards better products, it gives incentives for people to do things for other people for a profit, so that has an effect of “maximizing profits” one could say, but that is not the reason that capitalism works or is suitable for our “representative democracy”. Capitalism is supposed to be the push that keeps everyone productive, but Laissez-faire capitalism with no regulation simply allows the strong and powerful to get more powerful, take over political power and subvert the political system. In our case, that has already happened, but the people who are running things now are all about how they got there fair and square, harping about the good things about capitalism, but hiding what the bad things have been used to do … permanently.

        I think the rule should be the same with dioxin as anything else … if it is not found in similar concentrations naturally in the environment, keep it separate from the environment, or pay to have it cleaned up.




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  6. A lot of these studies are directed toward pollutants and potential harmful chemicals in meat products. What about plant products? Also, are there ANY studies showing potentially healthful effects of meat consumption?




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  7. If dioxins are found in the feed (as this example explains, in the clay) how do plants go unharmed from environmental exposure to dioxins and other toxins? Wouldn’t they be more exposed assuming that most animals and fish aren’t being exposed to dioxins directly and that they must mostly come from environmental factors?




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