Oceanas Misinformation Campaign

This week the environmental lobbying group Oceana turned its attention towards Wal Mart as it campaigns for retailers to post mercury warning signs. But what Wal Mart and consumers should know is that this campaign is more about misinformation than it is about mercury.

Oceana just released a report titled “Super Markets.” It begins with an executive summary that conveniently does not mention that the advisory is only for pregnant women, women who may become pregnant and children. The context and target audience of the advisory is obscured from the very first page of the report. It isn’t until page 3 (6 of 28 PDF) that the advisory is even explained. What’s more in a 28 page PDF the word “pregnant” appears only 7 times, while the word “consumers” appears 22 times and the word “customers” 23 times. This is not by accident, from the beginning Oceana substitutes the words “customers” and “consumers” for the very specific sensitive subpopulation that is the intended target of the advisory in order that the advisory will appear to apply to the general public. This is simply misinformation.

In its report Oceana attempts to position itself as crusading for safety with statements like “seafood safety information also needs to be highly visible and accessible to shoppers.” But their assertions are ones that scientists and regulators simply disagree with. On page 92 of Judge Robert Dondero’s May 11, 2006 decision in California’s mercury warning sign lawsuit he writes, “point of purchase warning conflict with FDA’s longstanding opposition to warning signs in connection with the sale of food.” The latest edition of The Journal of the American College of Nutrition quotes him as saying, “the very fact that a warning sign would be posted in stores for a healthy product that the federal government encourages people to eat makes them misleading.”

In the report Oceana also attempts to position itself as speaking for masses of consumers as it attacks the Florida grocery store chain Publix. However, it obscures Publix’s outstanding record on myriad of issues by waiting until the 4 paragraph of the 15th page to acknowledge that despite the chain’s policy against signs Publix has, “received the highest rating of customer approval (83%) of any supermarket in the country.” Oceana appears to be speaking for customers who are not asking to be spoken for. Oceana attacks Publix for failure to address “customer concerns” but apparently those “concerns” are not great enough to prevent said customers from giving Publix the “highest rating of customer approval of any supermarket in the country.”

So, who is Oceana speaking for? Is it soccer moms and NASCAR dads? Is it pregnant women? Is it household decision makers? Grandmothers and grandfathers? Just who is signing its petitions? Oceana itself provides us a little demographic insight into this question on its website where it notes that its volunteers collected the most mercury warning sign petition cards at the Bonaroo Music and Arts Festival. Perhaps as soon as Death Cab For Cutie finished its set mom rushed off to her local Wal Mart. Or maybe Dad stuck around for one more song from The Disco Biscuits before packing the kids in the car and making a bee line for Publix.

When it comes to messages about warning signs Oceana continues to operated in that gray area between skillfully under informing and blatantly misinforming. The facts about signs are simple and it doesn’t take 28 pages to explain them, in fact it doesn’t take 28 words. There are four fish pregnant women, women who might become pregnant, nursing mothers and young children should avoid; shark, tilefish, swordfish and king mackerel- Done. See that, I did it in 24.

Signs have the potential to advise audiences that they are not intended to advise and thus scare people away from a safe, healthy food. This unintended consequence is called the “spillover effect.” It is real and it has the potential to negatively impact public health.Eightypercent 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.” Oceana doesn’t tell you that part of the story.