Thursday, January 24, 2008

Controversy over finding of high mercury in NY tuna sushi

High mercury levels are found in tuna sushi, says the NY Times. It's so bad that the FDA could take legal action to stop the sale of the fish. It's a story that strikes fear into the hearts of some seafood lovers and probably everyone who sells seafood.

The mercury in tuna story was the number one most emailed story that day, so people are taking notice. This follows on a recent report of high mercury levels in swordfish.

But wait. There's a controversy brewing. The New York Times, that bastion of high standards, now stands accused of egregious misconduct by the National Fisheries Institute, the people who bring you fish. NFI is a trade association that helps seafood venders sell more seafood. Who do we expect to be more objective and less biased here, the NY Times or the NFI?

The NFI is coming out firing both barrels at the Times. According ot their press release, "NFI will be demanding an explanation from Times editors for how these basic breaches in the newspaper’s own standards could have occurred and will also be requesting a formal correction on specific errors."

Judge for's what was wrong with the story, according to the NFI (excerpts only)

- There is little if any acknowledgment or explanation of the widely accepted benefits associated with eating seafood...

- The sourcing found throughout the report is almost completely one-sided...sources consulted are (mostly) experts with clear self-interests and or (biased) activist groups

-...Burros chose to have her Sushi samples tested by Dr. Michael Gochfeld. As part of his own work Gochfeld treats patients for issues related to mercury.

-Kate Mahaffey from the EPA tells readers that a rise in blood mercury levels in this country “appears” to be related to Americans eating fish that are higher in mercury. This is pure speculation...

----Environmental Defense is a political activist group with scant expertise in the medical science of food consumption. Burros...describ(es) them disingenuously as “work[ing]…to improve human health.”

-Throughout the article there is a sensational mischaracterization of the RfD (reference dose)...

-In mentioning the levels of mercury found in the samples tested Burros fails to explain that the FDA’s “Action Level” is a calculated estimate that also includes a ten-fold safety factor.

Do the warnings matter to real people buying tuna? A follow-up story in the NY Times found customers buying the tuna sushi anyway, including at stores identified by name in the mercury article. Reactions from customers included:

“If I become iridescent from it, I become iridescent from it,” said one. “I’ll glow in the dark.” Another customer noted “You could worry about salmonella in the chicken, E. coli in the beef and pesticides in the fruit.”

Some customers were talking about reducing their tuna intake, but it didn't seem to like a big deal to many people.


Anonymous said...

The mercury levels found by the NYTimes are certainly cause for concern. But there are two issues here that I hope don't get lost:

1) seafood is generally healthy for you, but there are some kinds you should cut back on, or avoid altogether. Bluefin tuna definitely falls into the latter category.

2) Bluefin are SEVERELY overfished, which may be an even better reason (than mercury) not to eat it.

Mark Powell said...

You make good points Tim. There is much to consider when thinking about tuna, both health and conservation concerns. ED is doing good work on these and other issues, thanks.

Anonymous said...

I Love Your Blog. I have included a link to you in a post promoting Oceana. You can see it on Lumpys Ocean Life (Go Whale Watching with Oceana)

My Visitors will love your great articles! Lumpy

Megan W said...

I'm with Tim on this one. Also, I always remind myself that everyone has an agenda and when there are two opposing stories, the truth lies somewhere in between. One one hand, NFI wants to sell fish. On the other, the NY Times wants to sell newspaper. The scarier the story, the more papers they will sell and the more hits on their website. While it's true that the mercury levels in the tuna sampled were pretty high, and definitely above the FDA action level, they technically weren't levels that put a person's health in danger because there is that wise ten-fold safety factor in there.

Anonymous said...

There's a bit of misunderstanding here: the EPA uses a 10-fold safety factor as a margin of error, because ultimately toxicity levels are imprecise and differ depending on the health, weight, and age of the person eating the substance. You shouldn't think you'd need 10-times the reference dose to get poisoned. You might get poisoned at 1x or 2x or 10x -- it's an unknown because what we're talking about are risk factors, not precise levels. The question you need to consider is how to reduce your risk overall (if you care to) and the easiest way to do that is to reduce your exposure, ie not eat the stuff. But I think Mark has an expert in his house who can further elaborate. Right?

Anonymous said...

This is a deep subject. The ten fold safety factor is there for many good reasons. We are living in multitoxicant exposure environments. The levels of toxic substances built up in our bodies are not separate entities because they can have additive and even synerhgistic effects, especially with those toxics that affect the same physical/chem pathways in our
grandchildrens bodies. Pb, Cd, and MeHg have some common chemical pathways that can be additively affected by low doses of each one. We all have 500 to 1000 times the lead stored in our bodies than prehistoric people had. This lead can affect many systems that can in turn lower our thresholds of toxic effect from other toxicants.
These points are just the tip of the iceburg for public health. The mercury safety factor is really a misnomer. It is not saying that damage is not being done below that level. Also, politics is still involved as usual in setting those levels, and there is a long lag time from the science

Mark Powell said...

The ten fold factor doesn't comfort me, for reasons already cited here. Tuna at or near the action level is a concern, especially for pregnant and nursing women. The studies of real people with real health problems are reavealing and should be heeded. This is not to say seafood is bad, I love tuna and will continue to eat it, but certainly not every day (besides, I couldn't afford to do that anyway).

oceana said...

Thanks for your post on the New York Time’s local story about mercury in sushi. Oceana, an international marine conservation organization, published an even more extensive national study on mercury levels in fresh tuna, swordfish and tilapia from supermarkets, and tuna and mackerel from sushi restaurants. The good news is that mackerel and tilapia are low-mercury fish and can be eaten safely. The bad news is that swordfish and fresh tuna have high levels of mercury, and consumers should be leery.

The Food and Drug Administration has recommended that women of childbearing age and children completely avoid eating swordfish and limit consumption of fresh tuna to six ounces or less a week. Even if people are familiar with this advice concerning mercury, they probably don’t readily carry it while dining out or shopping for their weekly groceries. Additionally, Oceana’s study found that 87 percent of seafood counter attendants couldn’t provide shoppers with the FDA warning, so you shouldn’t rely on them to give you the government advice either.

Posting signs in grocery stores would provide this crucial information in a way that is accessible and easily understood. Major grocery companies like Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons are posting the FDA advice at their seafood counters. Still other grocers, like Costco, Publix and A&P, refuse to post a sign and give this important information to their customers. There is no reason to cut seafood totally out of your diet, but it is important to know what kinds of fish are potentially harmful and how to avoid them. Check out Oceana’s new report and get the full story.