Sensational Tilapia Story Begins to Unravel

So, despite the warnings to the media it’s happened again. A reporter eager for a sensational headline has botched a story about seafood science and in the process created an unnecessary scare.

This time it’s the Winston Salem Journal and its insistence that researchers have discovered the “possible dangers of tilapia.” Suggesting that people should be warned against eating it because it might be “risky” and going as far as to quote a researcher who suggests eating bacon or ground beef might have more healthful properties.

Wow-sounds like a story, right? Ground breaking stuff here- a once-believed inherently healthy food relegated to the recycling bin overnight?

Not so fast, Woodward. Let’s get Bernstein on the line and do a little research into this theory that foods with lower omega-3’s and higher omega-6’s are unhealthy and let’s also do a little research into this researcher too, how bout it?

Well, well, well… it turns out there is no scientific consensus that lower-omega-3, higher-omega-6 fish are unhealthy. And the very journal that published the tilapia research, Journal of the American Dietetic Association, also devotes three pages to a research editorial by William Harris PhD that blasts the aforementioned research theory.

And then there’s this- the researcher who’s busy publicizing these surprising findings about omega-6’s and their effect on inflammation, well he just happens to be selling a book about that issue and a diet program and hosts a website devoted to it as well. Hmmmm.

None of these facts were mentioned in the Winston Salem Journal article and with those egregious omissions in mind we have endeavored to bring these breaches in journalism standards to the paper’s attention and remind them that when unintended consequences of sound bite science start effecting people’s health the media is partly responsible.

Additionally, we contacted the Associated Press whose name was attached to a story about this topic that was posted on – the AP made it very clear that they had not written or endorsed this story and they contacted and had the siteremove the mis-branded story immediately.

Our letter to the Winston Salem Journal below:

July 10, 2008

Ken Otterbourg

Managing Editor

Winston Salem Journal

VIA Email

Dear Mr. Otterbourg,

I am writing to draw your attention to some breaches in journalism standards contained in Richard Carver’s July 8th and July 9th articles about new Wake Forest University research into omega-6 / omega-3 ratios published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

Here are the specifics:

Mr. Carver reports on the release of Dr. Floyd Chilton’s work in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association but never once mentions the fact that the very same issue of the Journal includes a three page research editorial by Dr. William Harris challenging Chilton’s work, pointing out that it “fails to consider relevant human experimental evidence” and attacks the dramatic comparison of tilapia to hamburger and bacon, calling it a “potentially flawed concept” that overstates the impact of omega-6.

Furthermore Mr. Carver never reports on the fact that there is currently no scientific consensus that higher-omega-6, lower-omega-3 fish are unhealthy. He reports on Chilton’s theory without any perspective or input from the research community that disagrees with Chilton’s hypothesis.

Mr. Carver writes about the report’s conclusions, which are based on the impact of omega-6 to omega-3 in certain fish. However he does not include the fact that the value of this ratio is in question and has been rejected by the UK Food Standards Agency. No recommendations from governmental or professional health organizations published in the last 6 years have embraced the ratio concept. That includes the very organization that published the journal in which the original article appears.

What’s worse, Mr. Carver fails to mention entirely Chilton’s personal and financial interest in reports that highlight new and “potentially dangerous food” sources for people with heart disease, arthritis and other ailments effected by “inflammation.” I am certain Mr. Carver knows, or should know, that Chilton is the author of the book Inflammation Nation, available for $24.95, and hosts the website where consumers can learn more about the “Chilton Program.” His failure to mention what some might consider a conflict of interest displays, at best, a lack of journalistic judgment.

Given that the research was originally published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association perhaps it would behoove Mr. Carver to use the ADA’s own guidelines on how to “Separate the Good Science from the Junk.” The association warns to look out for the following red flags that signal there are potential problems with nutrition and health claims:

  1. Recommendations that promise a quick fix.
  2. Dire warnings of danger from a single complex study.
  3. Claims that sound too good to be true.
  4. Simplistic conclusions drawn from a complex study.
  5. Recommendations based on a single study.
  6. Dramatic statements that are refuted by reputable scientific organizations.
  7. Lists of “good” and “bad” foods.
  8. Recommendations made to help sell a product.
  9. Recommendations based on studies published without peer review.
  10. Recommendations from studies that ignore differences among individuals or groups.

You will notice that 7 of the 10 “red flags” are present in Chilton’s work.

In his July 8th article, paragraph 8, Mr. Carver writes that “(tilapia) has been linked to health concerns regarding high PCB and mercury levels.” Nowhere does he attribute this claim to any published research and or researcher. In actuality, tilapia is very low in mercury and PCB’s.

In his July 9th article, paragraph 11, he tempers this unsubstantiated claim but nonetheless repeats it, writing “”(tilapia) has been linked to health concerns regarding high PCB and mercury levels, although the researches said that those concerns have been overblown in the media.'”

While Mr. Carver reports on exaggerated, non-science based claims about PCB’s and mercury that have been “overblown by the media” he ironically falls into that very trap with his sensationalist reporting that appears to have involved asking very few questions and doing very little research on the real state of science associated with this topic.

A minimum of research reveals the refutation of Chilton’s report in the very same journal and a bit more digging might have turned up an article in the July edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition from a Harvard cardiologist who writes that the “strength and consistence of the evidence” shows eating oily fish about twice per week can cut risk of dying from a heart attack by 36 percent.

There is an ongoing professional dialoged about omega-3 to omega-6 ratios and there is sure to be more research and discussion about any potential health effects such a ratio might cause. But articles that “warn” against eating a healthful product and promote the “dangers” associated with its consumption without asking questions or doing sufficient research are reckless.

With accepted journalism standards in mind we ask that you remove these articles from your web site and publish your own review of the reporting.

Thank you for your consideration.

Gavin Gibbons

cc: Charlie Elkins, Assistant managing Editor

Bob Steele, Poynter Institute