In early 2010, an environmental group sued several fish oil manufacturers for selling polluted fish oil.
All the major TV news channels covered the stink. Every single channel re-worded the plaintiff’s press release without digging deeper. The late Paul Harvey would have dug deeper for ‘The rest of the story.‘
The products named in the fish oil lawsuit are:
- GNC Liquid Norwegian Cod Liver Oil
- Nature Made Cod Liver Oil
- Nature Made Odorless Fish Oil
- Now Foods Double Strength Cod Liver Oil
- Now Foods Salmon Oil
- Now Foods Shark Liver Oil
- Solgar 100% Pure Norwegian Shark Liver Oil Complex
- Solgar Norwegian Cod Liver Oil
- Twinlab Emulsified Norwegian Cod Liver Oil
- Twinlab Norwegian Cod Liver Oil
Notice a pattern?
6 of the 10 products named in the lawsuit are Cod Liver Oils.
8 out of 10 are ‘liver’ oils.
None of the TV channels that talked about this endlessly pointed this out!
The other four were Shark liver oil or Salmon oil.
This cod liver oil issue was not a coincidence or a surprise to those of us in the fish oil industry.
- Cod, like Shark, are long-lived fish. As they go about living for years and years, and during that time, they accumulate environmental toxins.
- And the toxins are most concentrated in the livers.
So when you drink Cod liver oil, you should expect environmental toxins! That just makes sense!
This extensive report from Norway is revealing.
So that’s Reason #1 for Avoiding Cod Liver Oil: Pollution
Reason # 2: Lack of Industry Participation & Transparency
They say you can tell someone’s character by the company they keep. You can apply that to professional company as well.
Reliable fish oil manufacturers are members of GOED, the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3.
It is an industry group that sets standards and requires that members follow a certain code of conduct and produce products that meet quality standards. Sounds fair to me.
Oddly, Cod liver oil companies, even though they sell 7% of all Omega-3 pills, have been absent from GOED. Lots of fish oil, krill oil and algae oil companies openly belong to GOED. But you’d be hard pressed to see Cod folks. Hmm.
Part of the reason is that it is a very traditional industry that’s out of the mainstream. GOED has been reaching out to Cod liver oil manufacturers to help them embrace quality standards. We’ll see if they are successful.
Reason #3: Over-fishing.
Atlantic Cod is an over-fished and threatened species.
ICES (International Council for the Exploration of the Sea) coordinates the management of North Atlantic fisheries. We get most of our Cod liver oils from the North Atlantic.
There are a dozen countries that harvest cod and this makes it very hard to manage. Only 1 out of the 12 areas has sustainably managed their cod fishery – Norway. All the others have over-fished to the point of not having enough mature fish to reproduce the stock back to normal.
Of course, if I have to choose between my health and the environment, I have to side with my health. Sorry!
But you don’t have to make such dramatic choices. Cod is not the only source of Omega-3 available to you!
I know many people who take cod liver oil because it contains these Vitamins A and D. Both are critical, but there are purer sources.
If you want Vitamin A, you can take a purified Vitamin A extract from cod liver oil – get the goodies minus the contaminants. And if you want Vitamin D, cod liver oil doesn’t give you enough of it anyway…unless you take it by the spoonfuls. You’ll still need a separate Vitamin D supplement. You need about 4000 IU per day and cod liver has less than 10% of it.
Fermented Cod Liver Oil
And there is this thing called fermented cod liver oil or FCLO.
It’s an old scandinavian treat and popular with folks following the ‘paleo’ or caveman diet. I fully agree with the principles and science behind the paleolithic diet, but I don’t get the fermented cod liver oil thing.
The manufacturing of modern FCLO product is more shrouded than a health product ought to be. Technically you cannot ferment oils and fats, so it should be called ‘Putrefied liver oil.’
Traditional cod liver ‘fermenting’ technique:
- Throw raw cod livers in a vat with some brine
- Leave it exposed to air and sunlight for, oh, about 6 months
- Wait for the rotting livers to release the oil. It rises to the top and you skim it off.
Yes, it contains nutrients like Vitamins A and D that most people are deficient in. And in the right ratios, no less. There may even be some Vitamin K2 in there. But I’d much rather you get that from your diet. I try to get my A, D3 and K2 from liver, grass-fed butter, sunshine, cheese, and eggs – all foods on the Paleo altar. I also supplement with A, D3, K2 and E complex when my diet falls short.
Besides, fermented fish liver is simply too repulsive a concept for me to choke down. (Not that I’m squeamish – I faced my fears and choked down some super stinky fermented herring called Surströmming while visiting Stockholm. Hey, when in Rome…)
We live in a post-industrial world. There are literally over a hundred types of PCBs in fish liver. Modern fish oils go through several purification steps that virtually eliminate environmental toxins.
FCLO passes the 90 parts per billion industry threshold level. That’s a low bar and doesn’t make me comfortable. I want it under 5 parts per billion. Until then, no thanks.
Is My Cod Liver Oil-bashing Fair?
OK – you may be thinking that my Cod-bashing ways are self-serving. After all, our company sells pharmaceutical grade fish oil. I’m not trying to pump up sales of our product by bashing cod liver oil (we can barely keep up with demand!)
I expect to get a lot of hate mail for this one. So, to my naysayers, I say:
- Show me proof (an IFOS report or the like) that your cod liver oil is pure, clean and potent and that it passes standards that fish oil manufacturers follow
- Show me how it’s made and processed
- Show me how much Vitamin A is present in your product
- Show me some membership or association with some group whose rules you have to live by
- Show me that the cod are harvested sustainably
Most GOED members can easily do this.
If your cod liver oil can do all of the above, I will happily eat a heaping plate of crow (or fermented cod livers.) Your pick. I’m frequently wrong (just ask my wife) but I don’t think I’m wrong about this.
A couple of centuries ago, cod liver oil was enough to cure kids with rickets and other ailments.
Cod liver oil was your great granddaddy’s fish oil. Let it stay that way.
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About the Author: Vin Kutty, MS, is co-founder of Innovix Pharma. He is a nutritionist, author, and Omega-3 expert with 20 years of experience.