Thursday, March 6, 2008

Information in the seafood world has become as muddy as the water during a thunderstorm. Conflicting information and rumors leave some consumers so confused, many end up bypassing the fish market altogether.

A variety of resources can make things clearer. Consumers can calculate mercury amounts online, download wallet cards to take to the sushi bar, even have a guide text-messaged to their phones while they peruse a restaurant menu.

First, a little background. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency in 2004 issued an advisory that pregnant women, women thinking of becoming pregnant, nursing mothers and small children should avoid shark, tilefish, swordfish and king mackerel because of the high mercury levels in those types of fish.

The government groups also said the same populations should eat no more than 12 ounces (about two servings) of all fish weekly as most fish contain some level of mercury.

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and also can be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury, which falls from the air, can accumulate in streams and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water.

Fish absorb the methylmercury as they feed in these waters, and so it builds up in their bodies. As bigger fish, such as swordfish and shark, eat smaller fish, such as sardines, they absorb all the mercury in the smaller fish, says Jacqueline Savitz, pollution campaign director for Oceana, a Washington-based conservation group.

Environmental groups such as Oceana say diners should be wary of several other types of fish not specified by the FDA, including orange roughy and certain types of tuna.

“Tuna has thousands or even millions of times more mercury than sardines,” Ms. Savitz says. “Big fish are high on the food chain. Compare that to cows, who eat grass, or chickens, who eat grains. So it is not surprising that fish is a source of mercury.”

Mercury is a neurotoxin, so heavy exposure can lead to fatigue, memory loss and motor skills problems.

Since the FDA advisory, a number of advocacy groups and medical institutions have done their own research and issued their own opinions, further confusing consumers.

Dariush Mozaffarian, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, says part of the reason for the confusion is that the government groups offer no guidelines for those not in the high-risk group. Also, many people confuse mercury issues with environmental issues such as farming or overfishing.

The bottom line is that fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, low in fat and calories, and high in protein, Dr. Mozaffarian says.

“For the risk groups, it is reasonable to be on the safe side,” says Dr. Mozaffarian, whose area of study includes the health effects of omega-3 fatty acids found in fish. “For adults not in the risk group, there are clear benefits of preventing the risk of dying from a heart attack. Eating one or two servings of seafood a week can cut your risk by 36 percent. Heart disease is the No. 1 cause of death in America, and two-thirds of Americans do not eat fish more than once a week.”

Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a Washington-based seafood trade association, says the array of information coming from advocacy groups as well as a study of tuna sushi recently conducted by the New York Times “muddies the waters.”

“Environmental groups end up interjecting themselves into a debate about health,” he says.

Gina Solomon, a physician and senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the FDA’s data and guidelines are vague, so it has fallen on advocacy groups to clarify the guidelines for the public.

“The FDA has not done a good job with testing or providing information to consumers,” she says. “So groups have jumped in with the effort to clarify, which has made it more confusing.”

Oceana recently commissioned a study that tested 94 samples of fish and sushi from 26 cities and found that the average mercury level in the tuna steaks was twice the FDA recommendation of 0.38 parts per million. The group also found that nearly 90 percent of seafood counter personnel had wrong or incomplete information about the FDA mercury warning for women thinking of having children.

“The FDA should be constantly looking at their recommendation,” Ms. Savitz says. “We want people to eat fish, but people have the right to know which fish the government says to avoid.”

FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek says the agency is constantly looking at new data but has no plans to change its advisory. She says fish from various parts of the United States are tested annually.

Meanwhile, several major grocery-store chains, including Whole Foods, Harris Teeter, Safeway and Trader Joe’s, have posted the FDA/EPA high-risk guidelines in their stores.

The National Resources Defense Council has several cheat sheets available as well. There is a Mercury Toolbox on its Web site (, which includes a mercury calculator and a downloadable wallet card identifying how much canned tuna one can eat safely (depending on the diner’s weight). The wallet card also divides fish into categories ranging from low mercury to highest mercury.

The Blue Ocean Institute, an ocean conservation group, sponsors the Fish Phone. Consumers can send text messages to 30644, type the word “fish” as well as the type of the fish in question. Environmental and contaminant information will be texted back to them faster than you can say “California roll.”

Environmental Defense, a scientific nonprofit group, also has a printable guide on its Web site (www.environmental, outlining the best and worst seafood choices.

“The risk does come down to what kind of fish you are eating and how often,” says Timothy Fitzgerald, a scientist with Environmental Defense’s Oceans program. “If you are eating a lot of fish low in mercury, that is great. We are not trying to discourage people from eating fish. The average American eats about 5 ounces of fish a week. They should be eating 8 to 12. We are trying to educate that there is a possibility of a health risk.”

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