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BONUS GOHERR – Integrated governance of Baltic herring & salmon

This multivoiced and interdisciplinary blog reflects our efforts to combine the health of the Baltic Sea with the health of humans, and the ecosystem dynamics with human values and behavior. We the bloggers are doctoral students representing marine biology, environmental policy and sociology. Our blogs bring you news from the GOHERR project and thoughts about related hot topics. The aim of GOHERR is to develop integrated governance framework for Baltic salmon and herring.
18.11.2015 10:25

To eat or not to eat?

Suvi Ignatius

Dioxins are environmental pollutants for which European Commission has set maximum levels in foodstuffs. Finland and Sweden, however, have been granted a derogation to sell in their territories Baltic Sea fish with levels of dioxins, which exceed the maximum. The requirement for the derogation is to keep consumers fully informed of the potential health risks related to eating these fish. Information about health risks is often given together with information about the positive health effects of fish eating.

How do Finnish and Swedish authorities advice us consumers to eat Baltic Sea fish? In Finland the informing is largely performed by Food Safety Authority Evira and in Sweden by National Food Agency Livsmedelsverket. Both provide dietary recommendations on fish eating in their public webpages. However, information about health risks related to dioxin as well as dietary recommendations seems to be easier to find from Swedish Livsmedelsverket’s site than Finnish Evira’s site.

Swedish authorities also inform consumers via pamphlets and they have organized a public information campaign, including a short movie and advertisements in local media and on webpages. In Finland, the dietary recommendations are available mainly via internet. Also a printed leaflet has been put in circulation, and the representatives of fishing industry have been informed about the dietary recommendations. Furthermore, authorities of both countries provide information to professionals (e.g. health care staff) working with risk groups, although methods and scope of informing may vary. All in all, it seems that apart from the risk groups, the Finns have to make more effort to find out information about the recommendations. The Swedes may be more aware of them due to the recent campaigns.

What about the content of the recommendations that us consumers are expected to follow? Finnish Evira states that risk groups “may not eat large herring, which uncleaned are longer than 17 cm, or alternatively salmon or trout caught in the Baltic Sea more often than once or twice a month”. Swedish Livsmedelsverket says that, because of dioxins, eating “oily fish such as herring and wild salmon from the Baltic Sea, Gulf of Bothnia and lakes Vänern and Vättern may be problematic” and therefore risk groups “should not eat such fish more than two to three times a year” while “other people can eat these fish once a week”. These excerpts indicate that Swedish recommendations are stricter than Finnish in terms of how often it is advisable for the risk groups to eat Baltic herring and salmon. Furthermore, Finnish authorities restrict their recommendations on specific groups while Swedish authorities are of the opinion that everyone should limit their consumption of fatty Baltic Sea fish.

Also the definition of risk group differs between Finland and Sweden, although authorities agree on including children and young people in it. In Finland also persons of fertile age form a risk group. In Sweden stricter recommendations apply to women in childbearing age although also commercial and recreational fishermen and their families have been identified as “possible risk groups”. These differences between the recommendations become somewhat puzzling when one takes into account the fact that the average intake of dioxins in the Swedish population as a whole is estimated to be much smaller than in the Finnish population.

What does these differences between dietary recommendations mean from consumers’ viewpoint, and should we worry? My preliminary interpretation is that because of differing cultural perceptions of risk it seems to be societally acceptable for us consumers to take bigger risks in eating Baltic herring and salmon in Finland than in Sweden. The knowledge of adverse health effects of dioxins is much more uncertain than the knowledge of positive health effects of fish eating. It seems that Swedish authorities are more reluctant to tolerate potential health risks because of health benefits than their Finnish colleagues. Still, both countries have opted a strategy to let the people decide whether they want to take the risk or not instead of top-down regulations. At the same time they may pose moral obligations to individuals, in Sweden particularly to women, who should be able to make (informed) choices not only for their own sake but also for the sake of their (unborn) children.

In order to assess the causes, legitimacy and consequences of this situation, it is important to know, how different groups perceive the dioxin problem of fatty Baltic Sea fish. Our Bonus Goherr project will address this question in a workshop in February 2016. We will return to the subject once we get some results, so stay tuned.

To discover the issue from another angle, please read Mia’s blog post about the implications of dioxin regulation to Baltic herring industry.

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