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Here's a look at the science behind the scares

Amid the flurry of headlines about the food industry, it's a challenge to figure out what is safe to eat: Is mad cow disease a real threat? Does farmed salmon cause cancer?

Many consumers are racing to buy organic foods to avoid potential toxins in their grocery carts. But are we overreacting, or is there really cause to shun our food supply?

When it comes to two of the most recent foods called into question -- beef and salmon -- it boils down to a matter of risk vs. benefit. To help you decide whether these foods are for you, let's take a serious look at the science behind the headlines.

The Salmon Scare

A report in the January issue of the journal Science touched off alarm that farmed salmon contained levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, a kind of dioxin) that could be harmful. The concern over PCBs stems from their role as a likely carcinogen in humans, based on studies in animals.

In an ideal world, there would be no PCBs. But unfortunately, they exist in the air that we breathe and in many foods we eat, including chicken, butter, and both wild and farmed salmon. PCBs get into wild salmon from the other fish they eat and into farmed salmon from their feed (which contains many of these same fish).

The FDA has set the safe upper limit for PCBs at 2000 parts per billion (ppb). Farmed salmon averages 27 ppb, well below that limit. The controversy has come about because another branch of the government, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), has set a much lower safe limit for PCBs in food -- 4.5 times lower, in fact.

Keep in mind that these two agencies are charged with different functions. The EPA sets limits meant for recreationally caught fish, while the FDA's limits are intended for fish sold commercially. The FDA's higher limit is also supported by the World Health Organization and the European Union.

Although the amount of PCBs found in most fish is only 1/80th of the FDA safe level, ''The farmed salmon industry is working to further reduce PCBs in fish feed while maintaining the healthful omega-3 fatty acid content,'' says Alex Trent, executive director for the industry group Salmon of the Americas.

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