Oprahs Mag Gets Defensive

Oh Oprah, please let your Magazine staff know that, like Dr. Oz, its okay to say something like your concerns are valid, perhaps our article had a few flaws well be more science-based in the future, thanks for drawing this to our attention.

Heres the story: back in May O, The Oprah Magazine featured an article title Nice Catch! that was riddled with issues. We brought these issues to the editors and they fact checked the article and got back to us. But I cant say it was the start of a symbiotic love fest. Nope, cant say that.

For starters it took the magazine 48 days to respond to our concerns. During which time it fact checked the article. I find it surprising it took the Chief of Research for the magazine 48 days to research an article that had already been printedyoud think all those facts would be at her fingertips but maybe not.

Then O defended its use of vivid imagery insisting that we are not suggesting all fish are toxic or drug addled or endangered and that the illustrations were merely meant to highlight some of the perceived and even exaggerated concerns the public may have about seafood safety. Well, Ive read the article pretty closely (maybe I should take another look) and I dont recall it being an explanation of why the publics exaggerated concerns about seafood are warranted or unwarranted.

O then says that it didnt mean to confuse readers by mixing images of sport fishing and commercial fishing but just used the sport fishing references as a jumping off point in an article that primarily addresses issues related to store-bought fish. Then O jumps right off the logic train by pointing out that there are concerns about worrisome levels of toxic chemicals in fish and cites the increase in number of EPA mercury advisories in the past few yearsAttention O readers, EPA mercury advisories are for sport-caught fish not the store-bought fish that this article primarily addresses.

O also says, the FDA warns against consuming shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish because of high levels of mercury. So close to right so close to correct so close to factual but one piece of information is missing from that statement. The FDA advises only one very specific subpopulation about consuming those species and that sub population is women who are pregnant, women who may become pregnant, women who are breast feeding and small children. If you are not in that population, the FDA advisory does not apply to youfact.

Then O goes into a list of reports that mention mercury levels in certain species of seafood. The citation of these studies exposes a lack of understanding of what mercury levels in seafood actually mean. According toJennifer Wilmes MS, RD my colleague and fellow blogger at www.blogaboutseafood.com the mercury level of fish is only part of the puzzle. To create advice about what to eat, we have to look at studies that show what happens in our body when we.actually eat the food. In the case of fish, the beneficial nutrients outweigh traces of mercury. It doesnt appear that O Magazine looked at a single published study that shows the health effects of eating fish.

They did however look at a newsletter article from Micro Analytical Systems, Inc. (MASI). MASI is a company that sells mercury testing equipment to seafood suppliers, distributors and stores I hardly think their company literature counts as independent research and it surprises me that Os Chief of Research feels it dose.

O points us to this CDC report on blood mercury levels in children and women as examples of worrisome mercury levels in the population. Far better than a report from a company that sells mercury testing equipment it appeared this might be an interesting read and it was. But I wonder if the folks at O read the whole thing because upon review a couple things jumped out at me:

1.) The blood mercury levels it found indicate no health risk as they fall within an 10-fold, or 1000 percent, safety cushion.

2.) The study concludes that, fish are an important part of a diet, high in protein and nutrients and low in saturated fatty acids and cholesterol.

In our letter we suggested that highlighting the plight of the bluefin tuna in relation to Americans attempts to ensure sustainable seafood was a bit of an exaggeration seeing that per capita Americans eat about the weight of a paperclip in bluefin each year. In Os response to us they cite this from the U.S. State Departments Bureau of International Information Programs Bluefin tuna, prized for Japanese sushi, tops the list of threatened fish stocks. The species population has declined by 90 percent since the 1970s, overfished in response to market demand. Scientists predict bluefin and other species could disappear if overfishing continues. Ahhhhnow I see. What? That just highlights our point, the decimation of bluefin stocks is not the result of average Americans grilling in the back yard or whipping up a casserole. It is the result of the Japanese sushi market as evidence by the International Information Programs at the State Department.

And finally in its letter O suggests that the New York Times is a good source for information about questionable conditions at certain fish farms. Perhaps the Times isnt the best source on this issue. You see, in April the Old Grey Lady had to issue a correction because the newspaper incorrectly identified a security guard working at the port of Castro, Chile as the port director in a story about the Chilean Salmon industry that had originally run in the paper on March 27. In turn, the paper also admitted that in light of the new information, it should not have used Flores as an authoritative source in the story and that the original reporting on the use of hormones and pigments in salmon farming was unreliable.

It surprises me that a name as reputable as Oprah would take 48 days to come up with little more than a defensive diatribe that does little to address the simple fact that articles like these unnecessarily warn consumers (particularly women) away from an important healthy dietary staple.

NFIs Letter to O, The Oprah Magazine:

May 15, 2008


Dorthea Hunter

Assistant Editor, O, The Oprah Magazine

Dear Ms. Hunter,

I am writing in regards to a story that appears in the June edition of O, The Oprah Magazine titled Nice Catch. The story contains a number of breaches in journalistic objectivity and accuracy that need your attention.

They are as follows:

In the very 1st paragraph the author begins by describing a common fishing scene; youd shutter up you cares for a day and venture someplace remote and quite to cast your line. While the words paint a nice picture, they also miss a very important part of the fish story and could serve to confuse readers. This article deals exclusively with issues and perceived concerns about commercial fish. Sport fishing is not commercial fishing and is an entirely different discussion altogether. Sport fishing, where individuals might cast your line, happens primarily in lakes and rivers, for which there are unique issues of pollutants. Commercial fishing takes place in the oceans and on fish-farms. To a reporter who is unfamiliar with either, this might seem like a minor point but a minimum of research in to both would quickly prove the distinction major and important with regards to consumption advice.

In the 2nd paragraph the article takes a sensationalist turn with unsupported descriptions and complete inaccuracies. For starters, the reporter continues her misguided attempt at propos imagery by suggesting the reader reel in a flopping beauty. While she may be writing metaphorically at this point, it is important to point out to your readers that despite her focus on sport caught fish she is not in fact talking about sport caught fish at all. In the very next line she suggests the seafood you eat could be toxic. The article fails to mention that there have been no cases of mercury toxicity in this country from the normal consumption of seafood. To suggest the seafood on readers plates could be toxic is irresponsible. Next, the reporter writes that worse than toxic, your seafood could be a drug-addled mutant escaped from an aquafarm. While this imagery is vivid, it is also unsubstantiated and completely distorts an oft discussed aquaculture issue for the sake of fear mongering. Fish that are unintentionally released from aqua farms are not drug-addled and certainly are not mutants. In fact many fish farms are certified by the Aquaculture Certification Council, a nongovernment body established to certify environmental and food safety standards in aquaculture facilities around the world. To paint the entire aquaculture industry, which is key to sustainability, with such a broad and misleading brush is damaging and irresponsible.

In the 4th paragraph the reporter takes on sustainability. Here she chooses her example of how consumers are blithely gobbling up the last remaining members of a magnificent species from the most extreme of cases; the bluefin tuna. There is no question that when it comes to bluefin, there are sustainability issues. In fact the seafood community joined the U.S. Congress, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and environmental groups in calling for a moratorium on bluefin tuna fishing in the Mediterranean. While I am aware of your magazines global reach, the fact is that in the United States, bluefin makes up about one tenth of one percent of the seafood eaten. Thats about the weight of a paperclip per capita. If she is going to discuss sustainability and use phrases like brink of total obliteration perhaps she should be discussing the sustainability stories of commonly eaten species.

Paragraph 6 refers again to aquaculture and notes that ghastly fish farms remain all too common. I must question the editorial process that allows reporters to editorialize and sensationalize without some much as a single example to back up her allegation.

The 7th paragraph the reader finds yet another unsupported claim. This time it is suggested that mercury builds up in alarming amounts in fish. Which species? How much? Whose testing is she referring to? She offers not a single shred of quantitative scientific data to support her claims. I can successfully argue that alarming amounts of mercury have not built up in the flesh of fish since an industrial pollution incident in Minimata Japan nearly 50 years ago. Her journalistic ethics come in to question a second time in this very paragraph when her fast-and-loose-with-the-facts style finds her suggesting that many would add albacore tuna to the list of seafood expectant mothers and women planning to get pregnant should avoid. Who? Who are the many? And how many is many– 3, 30, 300? Regardless, the people who count in this equation are the experts at the EPA and FDA and they disagree with your writer and her many sources. The EPA/FDA advisory states specifically that expectant mothers and women planning to get pregnant can eat up to 6 ounces of albacore tuna per week. And because canned albacore tuna is a convenient, affordable source of the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids needed for optimal brain development in babies, scaring people away from it without scientific merit is potentially detrimental to public health.

Finally in paragraph 9, it is suggested that consumers use the Blue Ocean Institute as a resource for choosing their seafood. Nowhere is it mentioned that the Blue Ocean Institute is an eco-lobbying organization with a clear agenda. Readers should be given science-based unaffiliated resources such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations FishWatch website to get information about health and sustainability.

It is my sincerest hope that these transgressions will be publically addressed and corrected by your magazine. Thank you again for your continued attention to this matter.

Gavin Gibbons

National Fisheries Institute

O, The Oprah Magazines letter to NFI:

Mr. Gibbons,

Your letter expressing your concerns about the article in our June 2008 issue titled Nice Catch! has been forwarded to me as head of O magazines research department. My department fact checked the piece and found the writers statements to be well supported.

As you pointed out, the article opens with someone fishing and wondering whether his catch is safe to eat. While the imagery is vivid, we are obviously not suggesting all fish are toxic or drug addled or endangered. The concerns expressed merely illustrate some of the perceived and even exaggerated concerns the public may have about seafood safety. And while the article primarily addresses issues related to store-bought fish, we believe it is clear to our readers that the sport fishing scenario is a just jump-off point for a broader discussion.

The suggestion that certain fish have worrisome levels of toxic chemicals is completely legitimate. Concerns about contamination by environmental pollutants such as mercury and PCBs are well documented. According to the EPA, the number of advisories for mercury increased from 2,436 in 2004 to 3,080 in 2006. Most states have issued mercury advisories, and 80% of all advisories were based at least partly on mercury. Today 35 states have statewide advisories for mercury. Admittedly, information about contaminant levels of commercial fish is more limited. Besides the FDA, which warns against consuming shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish because of high levels of mercury, there are few other sources. However, a couple of studies do point to high mercury levels in certain store-bought fish. A study published in 2005 involving fish purchased in New Jersey found mercury levels of up to 2.5 ppm in fresh tuna samples, far above the FDA action level of 1 ppm (http://www.ehponline.org/members/2004/7315/7315.html). A study published in 2006 of fish purchased in Illinois found several samples with mercury levels over 1 ppmnamely, swordfish, orange roughy and walleye (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16815532). And tests conducted in 2007 on fish purchased from supermarkets in California and Florida found that five percent of the ahi tuna and halibut samples had mercury levels above 1 ppm. (http://www.safeharborfoods.com/pdfs/SafeHarborNews-0108.pdf)

While there may not be recently reported cases of people with mercury toxicity from normal fish consumption, there have certainly been reports of worrisome mercury levels in the population. According to the CDC, approximately 6% of childbearing-aged women had [mercury] levels at or above a reference dose, an estimated level assumed to be without appreciable harm (>5.8 g/L) (http://www.cdc.gov/MMWR/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5343a5.htm). The New York City Department of Health recently reported, approximately one quarter of New York City women [age 20-49] have a blood mercury level at or above 5 g/L, the New York State reportable level. (http://www.nyc.gov/html/doh/html/pr2007/pr059-07.shtml)

Regarding the issue of sustainability, you suggest our example of bluefin tuna is too extreme. As an example of a type of fish that should be avoided, we feel bluefin is entirely appropriate. There are many articles advising consumers to avoid Bluefin tuna. According to the U.S. State Departments Bureau of International Information Programs: Bluefin tuna, prized for Japanese sushi, tops the list of threatened fish stocks. The species population has declined by 90 percent since the 1970s, overfished in response to market demand. Scientists predict bluefin and other species could disappear if overfishing continues. Wed like to educate all of the public, not only the American public, but the others, about the risks of consuming bluefin tuna at this time, [says director of NOAA fisheries William T. Hogarth] (www.america.gov/st/env-english/2007/April/20070404145510mlenuhret0.70028…)

In reference to aquaculture, we certainly recognize the potential benefits of fish farming and note in the article that some farmed species are among the best choices available. Nonetheless, examples of questionable conditions at certain fish farms around the world have been widely reported. A recent New York Times article states, China produces about 70 percent of the farmed fish in the world… Enormous aquaculture farms concentrate fish waste, pesticides and veterinary drugs in their ponds and discharge the contaminated water into rivers, streams and coastal areas… (www.nytimes.com/2007/12/15/world/asia/15fish.html ) According to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Many farmed fish, including most farmed salmon, are raised in net pens, like cattle in a feed lot. Thousands of fish concentrated in one area produce tons of feces, polluting the water. Diseases can spread from fish in the crowded pens to wild fish. Antibiotics and other drugs used to control those diseases leak out into the environment, creating drug-resistant disease organisms. And if farmed fish escape their pens, they can take over habitat from wild fish in the area. While the U.S. has laws to protect the environment around coastal fish farms, many nations that supply farmed fish to U.S. markets do not. (http://www.mbayaq.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/sfw_ac.asp),

Regarding albacore tuna, our assertion that many disagree with the FDA/EPA allowance of up to 6 ounces a week for pregnant/nursing/child-bearing age women and young children is based on statements issued by organizations such as Consumers Union (publishers of Consumer Reports), the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Working Group, and the Mercury Policy Project. In addition, experts such as NYU professor of nutrition, food studies and public health Marion Nestle also take issue with the current allowance, as noted in her 2007 book What to Eat. The Rhode Island Dept of Health and the University of Virginia Health System, while recommending 6 ounces of tuna a week, advise women to choose light tuna over albacore. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts notes that some experts feel that even 6 ounces of albacore a week is too much for pregnant women; to be on the safe side, some advise pregnant women and young children to avoid albacore, bluefin, and other large tuna species altogether.

Noting that there is disagreement regarding current consumption guidelines is not scaring people away from albacore as you suggest. It is fair to note there is more than one side to the issue. We trust our readers are sophisticated enough to do further research if this is an issue of concern for them.

Lastly, we list several resources besides the Blue Ocean Institute that our readers can use as a resource. And we have not come across any information that suggests Blue Ocean has a questionable or illegitimate agenda.

We routinely encourage our readers to consume fish as part of a healthy lifestyle. However, most experts agree there are issues regarding seafood safety to be aware of. Clearly, some of the issues are controversial and there are compelling, at times opposing, arguments made by different groups environmentalists, industry proponents, biologists and other researchers. Our article is based on what we believe to be legitimate information from credible sources.

Derryale Barnes
Chief of Research
O, The Oprah Magazine