The bitter truth about sour herring
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The bitter truth about sour herring

It’s not only the odour of the “world’s smelliest fish” that should make your stomach turn. The Baltic Sea, home of the sour herring, is heavily polluted, making the fatty fish loaded with hazardous chemicals. ChemSec’s Sustainable Finance Advisor Patrik Witkowsky writes about a disputed delicacy in danger.

Yes, it’s that wonderful time of the year again! Last Thursday was an important day for people on the coastal parts of northern Sweden: the sour herring premiere.

Herring, caught in the Baltic Sea in April and May, is put in a salty brine, allowing it to ferment. For inexperienced eaters, this poor man’s cuisine that stretches back to the 1600s is considered to have something of a – how to put it – “pungent” smell. I’ve been told by friends enjoying it for the first time that the odour lies somewhere between sewer and rotten flesh.

Apparently, it has become something of a sport for foreigners to “dare” eat it, as seen here. But for people like myself, who have been forced by my parents (who were forced by their parents) to eat it since childhood, it smells and tastes like heaven. Put it on a flatbread with potatoes, onion, and sour cream – and pleasure town awaits.

However, unlike in the 1600s, the Baltic Sea is now filled with hazardous chemicals and heavy metals. The toxic substances have become part of the marine ecosystems and accumulated in the fat of the fish.

The levels of dioxins and PCBs in the herring, as well as a number of other fish, exceed the levels permitted by the EU.

“Unlike in the 1600s, the Baltic Sea is now filled with hazardous chemicals and heavy metals”

Sour herring can only be sold in Sweden because we have been granted an exception, under the condition that the Swedish population is informed about the risks of consuming fatty fish caught in the Baltic Sea.

One might question, however, whether the chemical risks of eating sour herring is really common knowledge among the Swedish population. One might also question whether it’s fair to require the consumer to investigate all facts before “enjoying” a dish available in the supermarket.

“It’s not just sour herring; other marine delicacies are becoming contaminated as well”

I am aware that there will not be a rebellion if sour herring is finally considered so toxic that it’s taken off the market altogether.

Even a fair share of people residing in the north of Sweden would probably be happy if the damn thing disappeared.

But it’s not just sour herring; other marine delicacies are becoming contaminated as well. A recent analysis shows that crayfish from Swedish lakes contain high levels of PFAS, a family of persistent chemicals, many of which are toxic.

These issues concern strange foods in a small northern European country. But that’s only to introduce you to the larger problem, which is global in scope. Once you start looking for them, you’ll find that hazardous chemicals are everywhere: in food, consumer products, and water supplies. No one can dodge them.

This constant exposure has resulted in all of us having hundreds of man-made chemicals in our bodies.

A recent study found that European teenagers have high levels of PFAS in their blood – only slightly below the levels found in the contaminated Swedish crayfish.

“Constant exposure has resulted in all of us having hundreds of man-made chemicals in our bodies”

Conclusion? The global economy not only needs to be decarbonized; it also needs to be detoxified. For now, I just want to share my vision for the future: a world where first-time eaters of sour herring don’t have to worry about getting a hefty dose of poison, but solely about not throwing up.

Patrik Witkowsky
Patrik Witkowsky
Sustainable Finance Advisor