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Something fishy in Jewish kitchens

LONDON, Jan. 21 (JTA) — The latest threat to the Jewish way of life in Britain may not be from anything as nefarious as anti-Semitism. For many of the United Kingdom’s 300,000 Jews, it’s a malicious attack on the very fabric of Jewish identity. The community’s lox is under threat. In the latest in a series of food scares, U.S. scientists have published research warning that farmed Scottish salmon — the source of the majority of British Jewry’s staple fish — contains high levels of potentially carcinogenic dioxins. The research, published in the respected journal Science, recommends that consumers avoid eating Scottish farmed salmon more than three times a year to reduce the potential cancer risk. The findings have caused an uproar at Jewish breakfast tables and Bar Mitzvah buffets across the land. “I’ve been serving and eating salmon since I care to remember, and I don’t intend to allow some pressure group to put a stop to that. It’s just another silly food scare,” said Leslie Silverman, a kosher caterer based in the south of England. Silverman has an array of international authorities backing her up. The World Health Organization, the European Union and the British Food Standards Agency, or FSA, all have rejected the study’s recommendations, much to the relief of Silverman and her hungry clients. “This study shows that the levels of dioxins and PCBs” — both toxins linked to cancer — “in salmon are within internationally recognized safety limits and confirms previous studies by the FSA,” said the agency’s chairman, Sir John Krebs. The article hasn’t caused a stir in the United States, where leading U.S. kosher-certification and kosher-food authorities said they’re aware of the issue scare but have received no official warnings or consumer complaints. “I haven’t heard anything in the kosher community that even resembles concern,” said Menachem Lubinsky, president of Integrated Marketing Communications, which produces the annual Kosherfest trade show. If any warnings about farm-raised salmon do surface in the United States, added Rabbi Avrom Pollack, president of the Star-K kosher certification organization in Baltimore, alerts would apply to all fish with fins and scales — all fish considered kosher. The University of Indiana scientists behind the report claim that their work — which has the backing of a number of environmental groups, including Friends of the Earth — is the most comprehensive analysis to date of salmon toxin concentrations. The researchers looked at more than two metric tons of fish bought in shops in North America, South America and Europe. “We think it is important for people who eat salmon to know that farmed salmon have higher levels of toxins than wild salmon from the open ocean,” University of Indiana professor Ronald Hites told the BBC. Atlantic and organic salmon has seen a slight rise in sales since the research was published, but national and kosher sales of farmed fish have stayed steady after an initial small drop. Detractors of the research also highlight the study’s failure to note the health benefits of salmon, which is rich on fatty acids thought to reduce the risk of heart attacks and — in contradiction to the current research findings — cancer. Gary Tucker, managing director of Riverine Smoked Salmon, a firm that supplies many of the U.K.’s kosher delis and caterers, told JTA that he smelled something fishy in the report. “This is a second-rate university study that smacks of political and financial interest. It’s just another scare to help promote the U.S. fishing industry at the expense of our home market,” said Tucker, whose firm turns over $3.5 million a year selling to the kosher market. The smoked-salmon entrepreneur is dubious about how seriously British Jews should take the alleged health risk. “The biggest ethnic market for smoked salmon in this country is the Jewish community, so if the research were true then surely there would be a higher incidence of cancer cases in the community, which there is not,” he told JTA. Tucker and the $1.65 billion-a-year Scottish Highlands industry that supplies him are determined to spread the message that salmon is not only safe, it’s good for you. Whether Jewish aficionados buy their lox and fresh salmon for the health benefits is somewhat beside the point, however. “Smoked salmon and cream-cheese bagels on a Sunday morning are a tradition, plain and simple,” Silverman said. JTA Staff Writer Joe Berkfosky in New York contributed to this story.

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