Note to Reporters: Stop Needlessly Scaring Consumers

Some opportunistic bloggers and click-bait reporters are using a new study on climate change and mercury to scare consumers away from eating seafood. It’s the same sad song and dance we’ve seen time and again from irresponsible voices who’d rather grab eyeballs than actually help inform the public.

Here’s what you really need to know about the study:

  • As we already detailed in this blog post, the study is not about people, or human seafood consumption. The researchers looked exclusively at mercury levels in fish, not human beings who eat fish.
  • The amounts of mercury in fish measured by the researchers were well within the safety limits set by the FDA.
  • There is no reason for the authors to mention canned or pouched tuna. The research did not look at the most commonly consumed tuna products: Canned and pouched varieties that predominantly come from skipjack, albacore, and occasionally yellowfin (which is identified on product labels). Yet the introduction to the study claims mercury exposure can come from fresh and canned tuna, even though there has never been a confirmed case of mercury poisoning in any U.S. medical journal. So why bring tuna into it at all? Perhaps because the authors know that tying their research to a common consumer product will give uncareful journalists a hook for their coverage. And wouldn’t you know it, nearly every piece on the study mentions the spurious tuna “connection.”

Here are some specific examples: Discover Magazine included the phrase “making seafood more toxic” in their headline – even though the study had nothing to do with nutrition and mercury levels reported were still well within the safety margins. The blog Medical News Today used a similar ploy with the non-sequitur headline “Why fish may become more toxic than ever.”

Environmental activist blog Grist drew its own spurious conclusions, writing “Climate change is making it more dangerous to eat certain fish.” What they left out is that Americans are already eating dangerously low amounts of seafood, contributing to a public health crisis. So consumers should be eating more seafood, not less.

But the Daily Mail might take the prize for scare-mongering theatrics with this ridiculous headline: “Is this the end of fish and chips? Soaring levels of mercury in the world’s oceans could make COD too dangerous for humans.”

Ordinary readers scanning these headlines wouldn’t be unreasonable to conclude that ordering tuna salad or fish tacos for lunch might put their health at risk. When in fact the opposite—avoiding seafood in favor of other sources of protein—is far closer to the truth.

Seafood like canned and pouched tuna are nutritious, affordable, and safe. Tuna and other seafood are rich in key nutrients like vitamins B12 and D, iron, zinc, magnesium, phosphorous, selenium, and beneficial omega-3s called EPA and DHA. You can read all about these benefits here.

Virtually every major health organization in the United States urges consumers to eat more seafood as part of a healthy diet. In the “Dietary Guidelines for Americans,” the federal government recommends that everyone should increase their consumption of seafood, and that pregnant women in particular eat at least 2 to 3 servings each week.

A comprehensive study from Harvard, focused on nutrition and public health, showed that some 84,000 cardiac-related deaths could be prevented each year with proper servings of fish in the diet. And reams of independent research have shown that seafood is vital for cognitive development in growing children, associated with as much as a 3-point boost in IQ.

And that’s the bottom line: Sensationalist reporting that skews the facts is not just bad for your mind—it’s bad for your brain.