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Wall Street Journal Details Inter-Agency Tussle Over Tuna
Overlooks low-weight albacore's lower-mercury alternative to standard canned product
8/8/2005by Randy Hartnell and Craig Weatherby
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Last week, the Wall Street Journal published an investigative report by Peter Waldman titled “Mercury and Tuna: U.S. Advice Leaves Lots of Questions." 


The subtitle, “Balancing Interests: Agencies Issue Guidance at Odds with EPA Risk Assessment,” summarized the thrust of the article.


Since the WSJ article raised many key questions concerning US regulation of mercury in food, I would like to share with you our view of its major findings, including the letter I sent to Mr. Waldman, and some other points that should be made.


Our response to the Wall Street Journal article

Here is the letter I sent Peter Waldman, both to educate him on some of the important distinctions among types of tuna on the market, and with the hope that he might be able to share these clarifications with the Journal’s readers.


Greetings Mr. Waldman,


I’m writing to point out a few important omissions from your otherwise excellent August 1st article on the hazards of mercury in tuna fish.


While the article does mention that mercury levels may fluctuate dramatically from can to can, it doesn’t explain why: the mercury content in tuna is related to age and size of fish, in addition to specie.


This is significant because there are companies such as ours that specialize in offering consumers the smallest-of-the-small, sustainably harvested, troll-caught tuna, which contain minimal amounts of mercury.


Most commercially available albacore tuna consists of the larger, ‘long-line’ harvested fish, which are not only highest in mercury, but lowest in omega-3 essential fatty acids.


Finally, the article does not mention that most available canned and pouched tuna is twice-cooked: once after packaging, and once prior, to facilitate removal of the skin and bones. 


This excessive processing eliminates many of the healthy fats otherwise present in fresh and raw-packed (canned) tuna. For this reason, the term “brain food” is misleading when applied to most commercially available canned tuna.


Our company, Vital Choice Seafood, specializes in seeking out and direct-shipping the cleanest, healthiest, sustainably harvested seafood to our customers, providing them with an alternative to the less desirable products condemned in your article.


Your article does do an excellent job of validating the reasoning behind our naming our company as we did.


Our newsletter archive contains two related articles you may find of interest: “Vital Choice tuna: Safer and Tastier” and “Oprah’s magazine gets badly misled on mercury in salmon.”


Thank you for your time.


Respectfully,

Randy Hartnell

President, Vital Choice Seafood

www.vitalchoice.com and www.minimalmercury.com


Troll-caught tuna shown lower in mercury

All Vital Choice tuna is the low-weight, low-mercury albacore landed by small “jig” trollers.  


Ours comes from a boat captained by second-generation tuna fisherman Paul Hill, a neighbor here in Bellingham, Washington. 


The troll-caught tuna difference is further described in our March, 2004 article, “Vital Choice tuna: Safer and Tastier.”


Tests conducted on such small albacore tuna confirm the low mercury numbers found in tests on our own younger, jig-troller albacore. 


To see a chart of the mercury levels found in 91 samples of younger, 3-5 year old albacore tuna caught by US jig-troller boats in 2003, click here.

And because we buy only the smallest of the younger tuna, independent tests show that Vital Choice albacore average about one-half the mercury present in commercially available albacore (0.25 ppm vs 0.5 ppm).


The data reflects the fact that smaller, younger albacore have less time to accumulate toxins than the older, larger albacore typically found on supermarket shelves.  


FDA and EPA tests on standard canned albacore showed mercury levels two times higher—although still well below the FDA guideline of 1.0 ppm.


Major points of the WSJ article

Before we relate the key points of Mr. Waldman’s article, it is interesting to note that, as often happens, the opinions of the Journal’s editors—as expressed in an editorial published on April 8, 2004—are at odds with the findings of the newspaper’s own reporters:


“If you've read a newspaper lately, chances are you've seen an ad claiming that millions of women who eat tuna and other fish with mercury are poisoning their children. That sure sounds bad. Only problem is, it's a whole lot abalone.

“The gold standard in mercury research is a University of Rochester study that tracked a group of Seychelles Island children from birth to nine years old. While their mothers ate fish similar to that consumed in the U.S., they ate 10 times as much [mercury] and had an average of six times as much mercury in their bodies. Yet researchers found no negative effects in their children.”


Note: While the results of the Seychelles study are considered sound and significant, a panel of experts convened in 2000 by the National Academy of Sciences agreed with the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the results of a Harvard study in Denmark’s Faroe Islands better reflect the preponderance of all evidence on the subject.


Others criticize over-reliance on the Faroe study, noting that, unlike the equally fish-rich Seychelles diet, the Faroe Islanders eat a fair amount of whale blubber and other “un-American” marine fare high in toxins other than mercury (e.g., PCBs).


The Journal story in summary

Mr. Waldman’s report focused on the tensions between government scientists on one hand, who tend to a more conservative safety stance, and the agencies’ senior bureaucrats and political appointees, who appear less resistant to pressure from the industries whose products are affected by regulatory action.


His article included these key points:

  • Scientific assessments of the relative safety of various levels of mercury are based primarily on studies performed in two places where children and their mothers eat huge quantities of fish: the Indian Ocean’s Seychelles Islands and Denmark’s Faroe Islands. Tests on children in the Seychelles showed no apparent mental deficits, while children in the Faroe Islands showed small neuro-behavioral deficits on three of 17 neuro-behavioral tests.
  • The conservative blood-mercury safety levels set by the EPA—one microgram a day for each 22 pounds of body weight—were deliberately set at a level ten times lower than the one associated with the very subtle neurological deficits seen in some of the Faroe Island children. A panel of experts convened in 2000 by the National Academy of Sciences supported the EPA’s decision.
  • Joint seafood-consumption guidelines issued in 2004 by the EPA and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were a compromise position lacking a persuasive scientific basis. For example, as Mr. Waldman wrote, “The maximum mercury ingestion the EPA deems safe is one microgram a day for each 22 pounds of body weight. If a 130-pound woman ate as much albacore tuna as the joint federal advisory allows, she would exceed that safe level by 40%.
  • The tuna-consumption part of the EPA-FDA seafood-consumption guidelines—which characterize tuna as a low-mercury fish—resulted from the desire to support the tuna industry. At a meeting of the FDA's Food Advisory Committee in 2003, FDA scientists said they had put fish in three categories: high in mercury, medium and low.  As Mr. Waldman reported, the meeting transcript shows that the average mercury level of canned light tuna was set as the benchmark for the low-mercury group in order to keep the market share at a reasonable level.  David Acheson, the FDA's director of food safety and security, told the meeting participants that the fish categories “were arbitrarily chosen to put light tuna in the low category."

Vital Choice tuna: a safer choice

We’re covering this story because we feel it is important for consumers to know that politics and industry pressure have played a big part in regulation of seafood safety.


We understand that government officials face a tough regulatory dilemma.  As former EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt—now Secretary of the Health and Human Services Department—told Mr. Waldman, "Mercury is bad and fish is good. We needed to choose the right words that would give people a sense of knowledge without creating unwarranted fear."


Regardless of how one views the political aspects of this complex issue, it is clear that consumers can make choices that matter to their health. It makes sense to choose a tuna product that offers the highest possible levels of beneficial omega-3s, and the lowest possible levels of mercury.


As we indicated to Mr. Waldman, all tuna products are not equal: young, low-weight, once-cooked tuna such as our troll-caught albacore offers markedly healthier, safer choice.


Click here to see the stark contrast in mercury content between standard canned tuna and our albacore (76 percent lower), which are also found in our minimal-mercury halibut and sablefish. It’s a difference that matters.


Note:  Despite the relatively low levels of mercury in our tuna and other wild fish, we do not recommend that expectant mothers or young children consume more than recommended by the EPA and FDA.  


Remember that on average, our albacore contains less mercury than the standard albacore guidelines in the US government advisory.



Sources

  • Waldman P. Mercury and Tuna: U.S. Advice Leaves Lots of Questions. Wall Street Journal, page A1. August 1, 2005.
  • US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). What You Need to Know about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish. 2004 EPA and FDA Advice for Women Who Might Become Pregnant, Women Who are Pregnant, Nursing Mothers, Young Children.  Accessed online August 4, 2005 at http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fishadvice/advice.html.

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