The Activist-Led Panic Against Mercury In Fish Is Harming The American Diet

This Op-Ed was published in Forbes on 9/19/14:



Mr. Gibbons is vice president of the National Fisheries Institute.

Next week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is hosting a three-day forum focused on the increasingly politicized topic of mercury contamination in fish. Why should you care? Because of all the scattered skirmishes in the ongoing food wars from soda sizes to trans fats, the activist-led attack on seafood is unique. That’s because if you stop eating those other foods, nothing bad is going to happen to you. But if you stop eating seafood, you’re actually putting yourself at risk.

This warning would be easy to dismiss as rhetoric were it simply coming from the seafood industry. But it is based on countless independent, peer-reviewed studies showing that when we don’t eat enough seafood we see cognitive impediments in children and more preventable cardiovascular deaths in adults. It’s a warning repeated by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the National Institutes of Health, among others.

But for too long, these cautions have been drowned out by well-funded activist groups whose ideological agenda and whose bottom line depend on scaring the daylights out of Americans.

Their boogeyman of choice is mercury. And they have been beating that drum for decades, warning that amidst the witches’ brew of pollutants spewed by coal-fired power plants, mercury was making its way into the fish on our plates. All manner of dreadful, irreversible health consequences were alleged to follow, for ourselves and our children. We’ve all heard the scare stories and dire warnings for pregnant women and the lectures from wannabe celebrity gurus. It’s scary stuff, and, as the activists themselves readily admit, an effective fundraising message.

People start to care much more, and understand the threat to the ocean, when you tell them that their tuna fish is contaminated, one activist told Fortune magazine about the focus on mercury. It’s a dramatic, eye-opening moment for people.

There’s only one problem: essentially none of this narrative is true.

It is true that there are trace amounts of organic mercury, called methyl mercury, in fish. But it’s also true that no published, peer-reviewed scientific study can locate a single case of mercury toxicity from the normal consumption of commercial seafood in the United States. Nor is there any evidence that countries like Japan, where the average consumer eats as much as ten times more seafood as Americans, have suffered from an epidemic of mercury poisoning.

Unfortunately, thanks in large part to the agenda-driven scaremongering of eco-activists, Americans now have a very different problem: We’re eating dangerously little seafood. Far too little to enjoy health benefits much less experience any potential harm.

We know from peer-reviewed study after peer-reviewed study that seafood-rich diets can prevent early death from cardiovascular diseases in adults and raise IQs in children. Researchers at Harvard even went so far as to conclude in a study on mercury in fish that seafood is likely the single most important food one can consume for good health.

And yet despite efforts from august institutions to push back on the din of misinformation, the data also tells us that America is facing a lost generation of seafood eaters and that women are by far the worst off.

Federal advice issued in 2004 encouraging women to eat up to 12 ounces of seafood per week was intended to maximize the benefit and minimize the supposed risk for vulnerable groups. But this aim at subtlety had the exact opposite effect. Motivated by better-safe-than-sorry reasoning, women’s seafood intake plummeted, and perhaps worse, they stopped feeding fish to their children. Instead of up to 12 ounces, pregnant women are eating 1.89 ounces of fish per week, according to FDA data. And per a recent national survey, 91 percent of parents with children 12 years old and younger confirm that kids aren’t eating the recommended amount of two servings per week.

The good news is the government is taking steps to reverse the trend. Just this year the FDA, after years of painstaking study and input from EPA and numerous other agencies, issued new draft guidance that represents a step in the right direction. Taking on this slow-moving public-health crisis, the new advice now talks to pregnant women about eating at least 8 ounces of seafood per week, transitioning from a consumption ceiling, to a floor. The draft advice isn’t perfect, and it’s being reviewed and worked on by experts, but it represents fundamental change.

The bad news is the anxiety peddling narrative persists. Recently, Consumer Reports, once a revered home electronics guide, became the latest to join the fray when they suggested pregnant women not eat tuna at all. FDA responded directly, telling Consumer Reports that they got it wrong. Consumer Reports’s recommendation overestimates the negative effects and overlooks the strong body of scientific evidence published in the last decade, FDA said. In response, the magazine admitted the FDA advice combines benefits and risks. Our approach to risk just looks at the risk.

We won’t be able to reverse the damage done by decades of this kind of thinking until the hucksters and extremists who created the crisis are disqualified from the discussion.

That’s why this otherwise dry federal meeting on fish contaminants is so crucial. A major focus of the forum will be finding new and more effective approaches to communicating public health risks and benefits related to fish.

We could start by telling American families the truth.