updated 1/23/2004 11:07:04 AM ET 2004-01-23T16:07:04

The farmed salmon industry faces legal action in California for failing to warn consumers that the fish contain what environmental groups say are potentially dangerous levels of cancer-causing chemicals.

The Environmental Working Group and the Center for Environmental Health filed notice last week of their intent to sue 50 salmon farms, fish processors and grocery chains under a California anti-toxics law.

“Our goal is to challenge them to change their practices so their fish is safe to eat,” said Michael Green, executive director for the Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health.

The potential lawsuit comes after a major study  published earlier this month in the journal Science found that farm-raised salmon contains significantly more contaminants than salmon caught in the wild because of PCBs, polychlorinated biphenyls, in feed. It recommended that farmers change fish feed and urged consumers to buy wild salmon.

The farmed salmon industry disputes the conclusions, citing experts who say the benefits outweigh the risks of eating farmed salmon.

“(Consumers) will be doing themselves and their families a great disservice if they stop eating farmed salmon,” said Alex Trent, executive director of the trade group Salmon of the Americas. He noted that farmed salmon, a source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, is much cheaper than wild salmon and can be purchased year-round.

Under Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, companies are required to notify consumers if their products contain hazardous levels of chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm.

State law requires private groups to first file notice of their intent to sue to give the state attorney general and other prosecutors 60 days to decide whether to join or take over the lawsuit.

Defendants named include major U.S. grocery chains such as Safeway Inc., Kroger Co., Albertsons Inc. and Costco Wholesale Corp. and farmed salmon producers in Canada and Europe.

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