Science - September 17, 2009

RIKILT: ‘Don’t eat river eels’

We shouldn't eat eels from Dutch rivers any more, cautions food institute RIKILT. The fish contain too many dioxins and PCBs due to polluted river sludge.

River eels have become uneatable because they are contaminated with high levels of dioxins and PCB’s.  RIKILT (Institute for Food Safety) says this in a joint report with IMARES. RIKILT toxicologist Ron Hoogenboom feels that sales of river eels – about one to two hundred tons per year – should be stopped because the high contamination levels are unacceptable. ‘Stricter standards and regulations are making our food cleaner, but not when it comes to eels’, he says. ‘We’re here to protect the consumer and it’s therefore our duty to give food safety advice.’  River eels are not really safe: pollution levels sometimes exceed the standards by a factor of eight. The standards have already been set much higher for eels than for many other food substances; they are based on the average pollution levels, which are high for eels.
‘Most eels in the Netherlands – about ninety five percent, are farmed. But if the neighbourhood fishmonger happens to have many river eels in stock, a problem will arise’, says Hoogenboom. ‘A person who eats river eel once a month would already have higher dioxin levels in his body.’ Wild eels from other waters are less contaminated; cultivated eels also fall within the standards.
The only way to clean the Dutch eel and rivers is to remove the cause. ‘Polluted river sludge, passed down from the sixties and seventies, is the big troublemaker’, explains Hoogenboom. It doesn’t take much imagination to see that an eel which spends its whole life wallowing in a poisonous marinade of chemicals and slime is far from healthy. Cleaning up is the only way to solve this problem in the short run, he says, but a costly one.