NYT Well Blog Promotes Contrived Controversy

The latest edition of the New York Times Well Blog highlights blogger Tara Parker-Pope’s unwillingness to accept the current state of science about seafood, a trait seen all too often in myriad environmental activist groups. These groups have no qualms about scaring people away from nourishing foods and thereby negatively impacting child development when the facts don’t conform to their larger pollution agenda. This strategy marginalizes their voice in this discussion and unfortunately Parker-Popes as well.

Parker-Pope suggests that the debate over mercury in fish, tuna specifically, rages a-new based on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committees (DGAC) latest findings. This characterization is born from the desperate spin of activist groups. These groups, and literate people everywhere, can easily read the DGACs findings, along with the latest work from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, World Health Organization and the FDA on the topic, and find they have come to the conclusion that for years pregnant women have been erroneously warned away from seafood. But for activist groups to embrace the findings of independent, published, peer-reviewed science that says hyperbolic mercury warnings have done more harm than good, is to admit they were wrong. Stronger, more confident groups would step up, accept the science and work on new strategies, but ones that rely on rhetoric in staunch opposition to reality continue to obfuscate the facts, and in the process carry on doing more harm than good.

The suggestion that the jury is still out on this issue and the overt claim that the panel withheld a recommendation about tuna is, at its core, not accurate. Parker-Pope even briefly discusses the panel’s very clear recommendation. Here it is:

  • Based on the most current evidence on mercury levels in albacore tuna provided in the Report of the Joint United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization/World Health Organization Expert Consultation on the Risks and Benefits of Fish Consumption, 2010, the DGAC recommends that the EPA and FDA re-evaluate their current recommendations for women who are pregnant (or for women who may become pregnant) or breastfeeding to limit white albacore tuna to not more than 6 ounces a week.

In the Well Blog the science of that recommendation is glazed over in a rush to give voice to the advocacy groups who are upset about it. But the reality is the DGAC clearly suggests the FDA and EPA go back and re-evaluate their current limit on albacore tuna for pregnant women based on the latest science. And what does the FAO/WHO report, cited, and the FDA Net Effect report conclude? They conclude that the benefits outweigh the risks. In fact the FDA’s net effect report raises the albacore consumption ceiling from 6 oz to 56 oz per week. Yet Parker-Pope and MPP prefer to ignore this stark conclusion and claim the issue remains trapped in a vortex of debate. It does not.

After herself posting a litany of clear scientific conclusions and quotes from real experts who say the benefits outweigh the risks, Parker-Pope digs deep to turn the narrative back to the fictitious debate that is supposedly raging. To do that she leans on a recent Consumer Reports article in which the consumer electronics magazine expresses concerns about mercury in tuna. What she fails to report is the FDA blasted that very Consumer Reports article as out of step and unreliable:

“The Consumer Reports analysis is limited in that it focuses exclusively on the mercury levels in fish without considering the known positive nutritional benefits attributed to fish. As a result, the methodology employed by Consumer Reports overestimates the negative effects and overlooks the strong body of scientific evidence published in the last decade.

In her conclusion Parker-Pope suggests readers look to a turtle preservation group that employs not a single medical doctor or dietitian for ongoing nutrition advice. This direction is given in the face of an avalanche of independent data that concludes Americans don’t eat enough seafood.

Lets be clear about what we are talking about: public policy strategy executed by groups like MPP. Blog postings like this one are designed to promote a narrative that claims there is an ongoing debate where there is not. Reasonable, responsible, informed members of the nutrition and scientific community have identified the conclusions of more than a decade’s worth of science and understand that the benefits of seafood consumption, including tuna, outweigh the risks. They understand independent research tells us that risks from minute amounts of mercury in seafood have been overstated and that warnings are making mothers eschew a food that clearly aids in fetal development.

If the MPPs of the world make enough noise and the Tara Parker-Popes of the world accept their flawed narrative as gospel, they can distract from the overwhelming evidence that they are responsible for creating a public health problem. They can divert attention away from the fact that the mercury boogeyman they’ve so often traded on has been relegated to a bin that contains the remains of anti-vaccine campaigns and sightings of the Loch Ness Monster.