NFI Goes On The Record With Mother Jones Magazine

Back on March 1, 2008, NFI received an email from /Stephanie Mencimer, a reporter for Mother Jones about a story she is working on concerning tuna and mercury toxicity. Ms. Mencimer submitted a number of questions via email, which we have answered below. In addition to the Q&A, we put two questions to Ms. Mencimer: 1) Were you encouraged to do this article or introduced to the topic by an activist group? 2) Have you sought out any independent medical or science sources, besides NFI, that can speak directly to the safety and dietary importance of eating fish? While we answered her questions, to date, Ms. Mencimer has failed to answer ours.

It would appear that the article is now ready for publication and will be featured in the September/October edition of Mother Jones. Itwill run under the headline Tuna’s Mercury Surprise.Below is a full and complete accounting of theanswers we provided to Mother Jones in their proper context.

NFI’s Q & A with Mother Jones Magazine 03.03.08:

The story is about a woman who got mercury poisoning from eating canned tuna fish. It generally reviews whether the FDA advisory on mercury on seafood is sufficient to protect the public. Here are the questions I have for NFI:

How has the FDA advisory on mercury in fish and the related news coverage of the issue affected the consumption of canned tuna in the U.S.? Has it hurt business?

Recently, the New York Times released an alarmist story on mercury in fish that inaccurately interpreted government guidelines as the cornerstone of its reporting. After we publicly highlighted those omissions and transgressions, the story was widely discredited by Time,, The Center for Independent Media and the Times’ own public editor. We expect that any information we provide you will be used in its proper context.

Agenda-driven, hysterical, and non-science-based media coverage that distorts the theoretical concerns about mercury in fish obscures the proven health benefits of seafood. It has an impact on public health, particularly the health of babies and young children. Three scientific studies within the last month from the Child and Family Research Institute, Harvard Medical School, and Wayne State University School of Medicine all concluded that a seafood-deficient diet put brain development in babies at risk.

Furthermore, Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, assistant professor of medicine and epidemiology at Harvard Medical School, was recently quoted in Time magazine in response to such reckless and alarmist reports as saying, “we are experimenting with people’s lives when we give recommendations or write stories or reports that make people eat less fish.”

As you research the state of the canned tuna industry let me refer you to a profile of the industry done by IntraFish for its February 2008 edition (Volume 6, Issue 2, p.28; Species Focus: Tuna.)

Does the tuna industry donate money to the American Heart Association? Can you explain how canned tuna came to get the association’s stamp of approval (i.e., the healthy heart log on the label of canned tuna)?

The National Fisheries Institute and the Tuna Council do not donate money on behalf of the industry to the American Heart Association (AHA). However AHA does participate in cause related marketing with certain individual member companies in order to fundraise on behalf of its heart health programs. Several individual tuna products and companies meet the AHA guidelines required to carry the heart check-mark because of tuna’s rich omega-3 fatty acid profile and proven benefits in lowering heart disease risk.

A Harvard School of Public Health study shows that eating two servings of fish per week can cut your risk of dying from a heart attack (the number one cause of death for both man and women in the U.S.) by 36 percent. For these reasons the American Heart Association advises adults and children ages two and up to eat at least two servings of fish a week, but most Americans eat less than half that amount. Please contact AHA directly for information about their heart-check mark program and details on how products gain the certification needed to display it.

Given that there are now a number of confirmed cases of high blood mercury levels among people who consumed a lot of canned tuna, including young children, does the industry believe that the FDA advisory is sufficient to protect the public? Are there any plans to consider adding some sort of advisory on canned tuna about the possible presence of high levels of mercury? What, if anything, is the canned tuna industry doing to address this issue?

If “high blood mercury levels” is meant to suggest mercury toxicity or mercury poisoning that is an unproven assertion that flies in the face of independent and proven scientific knowledge about canned tuna and all seafood’s proven benefits. The mercury found in ocean fish is almost all naturally occurring and has been present since the beginning of time.

There is not a single medically documented case or peer-reviewed scientific study in this country that correlates normal seafood consumption with mercury poisoning. It is irresponsible to perpetuate anecdotal tales of high seafood consumption causing health concerns when those types of stories contradict published science showing the health benefits of eating fish at least twice per week.

Landmark independent, peer-reviewed, scientific articles published recently continue to show that the health benefits of seafood far outweigh concerns over trace amounts of mercury. Researchers from a variety of reputable institutions have calculated the total health impact of both the beneficial nutrients in seafood and mercury, and continue to find a net benefit in everything from brain development in babies to prevention of heart disease as people age. Researchers from the National Institutes of Health conclude, “advice to limit seafood consumption could actually be detrimental.”

In fact mounting evidence suggests the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) advisory has conversely had a negative effect on pregnant women who have reduced their fish intake beyond the parameters of the advisory which deprives growing babies of important DHA. Federal seafood recommendations for pregnant women are misunderstood and lead to decreased seafood consumption, according to research from Harvard Medical School. Survey data shows 80-90 percent of pregnant women are not eating seafood twice per week as recommended by all major health authorities.

80 percent of the general population, for whom there are no seafood consumption limits, does not eat seafood twice per week. In their 2006 report, “Seafood Choices: Balancing Benefits and Risks,” the Institute of Medicine cautioned, “consumer messages should be tested to see if there are spillover effects for those not targeted by the messages. Evidence suggests that risk-avoidance advice for susceptible groups may be unnecessarily followed by other individuals, or the general public.”

It is a little known fact that prior to issuance of the advisory the FDA conducted focus groups in order to help determine the impact of the advisory. The results showed evidenced that the advisory might in fact do more harm than good. A review of the tapes and or transcripts from this research could give you some insight into the impact of the advisory. Additionally, the FDA recently completed a study on the impact of the advisory but the results have yet to be released.

Regarding product labeling, California courts have already weighed in on this matter in a 2006 case surrounding proposition 65. The courts concluded that labels were unnecessary and would limit consumption of a healthy food. In the judge’s decision he referenced the FDA’s stance in the case writing, “…a label statement that reaches the general public can have unintended consequences, such as reduced consumption. FDA’s policy approach in the FDA/EPA advisory specifically avoids warning all customers in favor of a more comprehensive and targeted approach.”

Additionally the FDA has dismissed the need for similar labels for fear of the detrimental effects discussed earlier, “…label statement that reaches the public at large can also have unintended adverse public health consequences. FDA focus group results suggest that people who are not in the target audience (i.e., women who are not nursing and not likely to become pregnant, and men) might eat less fish or refrain from eating fish altogether when they receive information about the mercury content of fish and possible harmful health effects to pregnant women, women who might become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children.”

To address the public health consequences of families scared away from seafood and its numerous health benefits, the National Fisheries Institute communicates the latest seafood science to doctors, dietitians, the media, policy makers, and members of the seafood community.

In the past, representatives from the tuna foundation have stated publicly that there has never been a confirmed case of anyone suffering from mercury poisoning from eating commercial seafood. Does NFI/US Tuna Foundation still stand by this statement? If so, how do you reconcile this with the scientific literature showing reports of many such cases?

We are unaware of any scientific peer reviewed literature concluding there have been any cases of mercury poisoning or mercury toxicity as a result of normal consumption of seafood. If you are aware of scientific literature that supports this assertion please forward it to us. Neither the Centers for Disease Control nor any peer-reviewed medical journal has ever confirmed a case of mercury toxicity from normal consumption of seafood in this country.

Anecdotal claims of mercury “poisoning” or “toxicity” cited in the media do not meet medical or scientific standards. The opinions of Dr. Jane Hightower are commonly cited as peer reviewed medical conclusions in the press, which they are not. Hightower performed a yearlong study of 123 patients that was published in the April 2003 edition of Environmental Health Perspectives. Her only published conclusion is that fish consumption was positively correlated with mercury levels in the study group, which does not illustrate anything that is not well known and documented. Dr. Hightower’s remarks to the media (not peer-reviewed medical conclusions) that a steady diet of high-mercury fish causes negative symptoms are anecdotal and unsubstantiated by the medical community.