Apparently thanks to a California man who pulled a 5-foot, 6-inch tapeworm out of his ass in January, Facebook was this week blowing up with a visually distasteful warning not to eat salmon.
Where the post featuring a worm wiggling out of a coho salmon filet originated was unclear, as is the case with so many shared Facebook posts, but it was spreading like a virus.
By the time it popped up on “Mend It,” a site for Alaska anglers on Thursday morning, Facebook reported it had already been viewed by more than 14 million people. By nightfall Thursday, the count was up over 17 million and steadily growing.
Orlando Gonzales, the site administrator for Mend It, said the video was shared by a Facebook friend of the site who knew Renee Wolfenson in Los Angeles. Wolfensen said it came to her page from yet another friend.
Wolfensen, or someone acting on her behalf, took the page down very late on Thursday night, and it became unavailable on the Mend It page as well, but it was still playing on the page of Taylor Adher in London and Freedom Crystal Jefferson in California who got it from Lisa Samuel in England and David Wong who shared 翁靜晶‘s post and the Vegan News and who knows how many others.
The Vegan News appeared to have jumped the merry-go-round early. Whether the latest post had its origins there, however, is unclear. The start of the Vegan video features the same youtube video of Costco coho, but the Vegan News post is a minute shorter than the newer Facebook post.
The youtube video, in turn, comes from a Sammy Ryerson “Live worm in Costco salmon” report in 2015. That report attracted fewer than 110,000 views.
The newer Facebook post, which starts with Ryerson’s youtube video and continues for another minute with footage of worms being removed from a white-fleshed fish of indeterminate species, got a lot more traction. The Facebook post is labeled with some sort of crown logo, the origin of which could not be determined.
Along with the more than 17 million views on that post, the Vegan News reported 4.2 million views and 82,680 shares on its wormy salmon post. The comments on that post and the other were predictable: “f—–g disgusting” and lots of vomiting emoticon.
The good news for Alaska commercial fishermen is that judging by Facebook comments many thought the wormy fish were farmed salmon, not wild fish. Ironically, farmed fish are now largely fed pelleted food which makes it highly unlikely they will end up with parasites. Parasites are picked up from wild prey.
Still, the posts were not good news for salmon marketers from Alaska or anywhere elsewhere. When some of the posts went down, this appeared in their place:
“Sorry, this content isn’t available right now
Facebook has been in a battle against “fake news,” but it was unclear whether the posts removed had anything to do with that.
“….We don’t want any hoaxes on Facebook,” Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg said in as September post on his page. “Our goal is to show people the content they will find most meaningful, and people want accurate news. We have already launched work enabling our community to flag hoaxes and fake news, and there is more we can do here.”
But he went on to admit “the ‘truth’ is complicated. While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted.”
The tapeworm post, like the news reports of the man in San Fransisco who developed a giant tapeworm thanks to a daily diet of raw salmon, was not fake. It might have been misleading, and the comments it attracted even more so.
It might have involved the inappropriate borrowing of Ryerson’s video and, probably, that of someone else. And it mostly certainly was a black-eye for salmon.
But it was not fake.
Tapeworms are common in salmon. In cooperation with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, a group of Czech and Slovak scientists in 2013 went looking for them in salmon in streams near Alaska’s largest city.
They examined 64 salmon and found tapeworms in many of them, including one with the especially troubling Japanese broad tapeworm. It was in a pink salmon pulled from Resurrection Creek near Hope, just across Turnagain Arm from Anchorage. The tapeworm inside was “found unencysted, deep in the musculature of the anterior part of the fish near the spinal cord,” the scientists reported. “It was highly motile.”
In most ways, those “highly motile” worms seen in the Facebook post and Ryerson’s video are less dangerous than encysted tapeworms because people can spot the worms. Often, unfortunately, the worms are, as Alaska fish pathologists describe, “tightly curled” in the salmon’s flesh.
Those tightly curled worms can be very hard to spot. Where fresh salmon are to be consumed raw or lightly cooked, the best practice is for it to be sliced very thin and placed on a light table for inspection.
Sushi professionals are well aware of this. Many average Alaskans are not. And the state has historically tried to downplay the issue of parasites in Alaska salmon to protect sales of commercially caught fish.
“Recent news reports have mentioned parasites in Alaska salmon; however, Alaska salmon is among the highest quality seafood and safe for consumer consumption,” the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI), a state-backed fish marketing association, said in a press release last year. “All commercially harvested Alaska seafood, which accounts for more than 60 percent of all the seafood harvested in the United States, is processed in accordance with strict Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulations, including parasite controls. These regulations specifically guard against potential harm to ensure that eating both salmon sushi and fully cooked salmon can be safely enjoyed.
“Only 6 percent of wild Alaska salmon is released fresh from Alaska, the majority is frozen. The catch is chilled and then commercially frozen in accordance with FDA guidelines, ensuring the seafood is kept at the peak of quality, freshness and safe from bacteria and parasites.”
Fresh fish are the tapeworm risk – a risk of which many Alaskans who catch their salmon themselves seem unaware.
Most Outside salmon consumers are protected from parasites, as ASMI notes, by those aforementioned FDA regulations: “According to FDA guidelines, seafood needs to be frozen to -4°F or below for seven days if it is to be consumed raw for food safety reasons.”
And 94 percent of “fresh” Alaska salmon, as ASMI notes, is sold previously frozen to kill tapeworms. Most of the small quantity of truly fresh fish is shipped to restaurants where chefs, hopefully, know how to handle it, although even there ASMI recommends using “properly frozen seafood” for “any raw or semi-raw preparations.”
As for Alaskans who yearn for that first, fresh salmon of the year in April, May or June, well, they can gamble and not worry about tapeworms. The parasites are not in all salmon, and they will sometimes pass through people without much effect.
But if you’re not the gambling type, there are two choices: freeze the fish and wait for a week as ASMI suggests or cook it to an internal temperature of 145°F. A meat thermometer will be handy there because you really don’t want to go hotter than 145.
Ideally, according to food editor Rick Martinez of the magazine Bon Apettit, the thickest part of the filet shouldn’t be cooked beyond 120 degrees, but then you’re once again playing tapeworm roulette.
For those wanting to know more, British Columbia, Canada, has a good primer on parasites in West Coast fish, including those found in freshwater: http://www.bccdc.ca/resource-gallery/Documents/Educational%20Materials/EH/FPS/Fish/IllnessCausingFishParasitesJan13.pdf