Read our response to her mistaken fears about salmon and mercury
by Randy Hartnell
During a recent interview on the “E” TV channel to promote her new spy thriller, “Duplicity”, Julia Roberts responded to a fan’s emailed question.
And although she expressed a love for salmon, she also voiced a mistaken fear of eating salmon frequently.
(The video clip, which only appeared last week, seems to have vanished from the channel's Web site and we can no longer find it anywhere.)
Her mistake was innocent... but the potential for Ms. Roberts and other public figures to do unintentional harm requires an educational response.
She’s actually lucky to love salmon, since WebMD just named fatty fish – specifically salmon, sardines, and mackerel – one of “The Six Super Foods Every Woman Needs,” with a recommended goal of 2 to 3 servings every week.
Here’s my open letter to Ms. Roberts, informing her of the facts, and gently requesting a correction.
Dear Julia Roberts,
I’m Randy Hartnell, founder of Vital Choice Wild Seafood & Organics, which I founded in 2002 after 20 years fishing Alaskan water for salmon and other species.
I’ve loved your performances in many movies, and admire your humanitarian work for UNICEF and others.
And I need to bring to your attention an unfortunate remark you made recently about the safety of eating salmon.
During an interview about your upcoming spy thriller, “Duplicity”, you responded to a fan question read to you on the “E” TV channel.
This was the question: “Julia, if you had to choose one meal to eat for the rest of your life, what would it be?”
You responded, “I guess salmon... but I would probably die of mercury poisoning then wouldn't I?”
We want to make sure that you - and our readers and customers - know the facts.
Wild salmon is naturally low in mercury… but rich in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin D, whose preventive health potential outstrips most food factors.
Yet, we continue to hear misguided fears, even though U.S. health agencies and independent advocacy organizations recommend salmon as a very safe, low-mercury species.
Here’s the scoop.
Salmon is safe and positively healthful… and so are most fish
Your misplaced mercury concern comes as no surprise, given the ongoing confusion about fish, mercury, and the safety of various seafood species.
U.S. health authorities and knowledgeable doctors urge Americans to eat more omega-3 fatty acids, whose benefits to heart health, brain function, and child development are undisputed.
And every one of the several recent evidence reviews conducted by university scientists found that the ample health rewards of fish-heavy diets far outweigh any risks to health posed by eating fish frequently.
As it happens, wild salmon rank high among the very safest and most beneficial fish in the sea.
Test data compiled by the three federal agencies that monitor mercury levels in fish — EPA, FDA, and NOAA — show that the average mercury content in salmon is very low.
Like these federal agencies, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) — a leading critic of government efforts to limit mercury pollution — considers wild Alaskan salmon safe to eat on a frequent basis. Based on US government tests, EWG lists wild Pacific Salmon among the species lowest in mercury and says, “The risk of mercury in salmon appears to be minimal.”
Also, consider this statement from the Alaska Division of Public Health (SOA 2001): “Fortunately, mercury levels are very low in the most frequently consumed fish from Alaska, such as Salmon, Cod, Halibut…. Mercury levels in Salmon are among the lowest found.”
A recent review of the evidence confirmed the superior purity of wild Alaskan Salmon: “Pacific Salmon… had exceptionally low [mercury] concentrations” (Jewett SC, Duffy LK 2007).
And recent data from Alaska’s Fish Monitoring Program show that levels of organic pollutants (e.g., PCBs and dioxin) in salmon and other wild Alaskan fish fall well below the levels that would raise health concerns (SOA 2007).
Last but not least, wild Alaskan salmon is listed as a safe choice on the Sushi Guides issued last fall by three leading eco organizations (See “Sushi Guides Endorse Our Seafood Choices”).
We should add that most ocean fish are safe to eat frequently, with the exception of a very few high-mercury species - primarily swordfish, shark, tilefish, and King mackerel (not other kinds of mackerel).
And my company, Vital Choice, selects only smaller - hence lowest-mercury - tuna halibut, and sablefish because mercury accumulates in these and other predatory fish as they feed and grow over time.
Salmon are predators, too, but they only live two to four years, and sockeye, pink, and chum feed primarily on zooplankton and crustaceans, which are extremely low in mercury. (Silver and king eat more small fish, but remain very low in mercury.)
Please consider a public correction
It would be a shame were your fans to avoid one of the healthiest fish in the sea — wild salmon — because of an inadvertent error.
And folks who make their living harvesting and marketing salmon shouldn’t suffer because of one offhand remark.
Salmon fisherman in Alaska risk their lives to harvest one of the healthiest foods left on earth, and can ill afford unwarranted damage to wild salmon markets already under siege by nutritionally and environmentally inferior farmed salmon.
On behalf of the wild salmon industry and all who admire your professional and charitable work, I respectfully request that you issue a clarification through E online, or any suitable outlet.
And please send a signed copy to me, Randy Hartnell… I’ll definitely frame it!
I wouldn’t normally include scientific references in a letter, but you will find some at the end of this one.
After all, we do sell wild salmon, so I wouldn’t blame you for wanting to make sure we can confirm what we say.
- ALSPAC Study Team. Accessed online at http://www.alspac.bris.ac.uk/welcome/index.shtml Feb 17, 2007.
- Daniels JL, Longnecker MP, Rowland AS, Golding J; ALSPAC Study Team. University of Bristol Institute of Child Health. Fish intake during pregnancy and early cognitive development of offspring. Epidemiology. 2004 Jul;15(4):394-402.
- Golding J, Pembrey M, Jones RALSPAC Study Team. ALSPAC: the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. I. Study methodology. Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol 2001; 15: 74-87.
- Hibbeln JR, Davis JM, Steer C, Emmett P, Rogers I, Williams C, Golding J. Maternal seafood consumption in pregnancy and neurodevelopmental outcomes in childhood (ALSPAC study): an observational cohort study. The Lancet 2007; 369:578-585.
- Jewett SC, Duffy LK. Mercury in fishes of Alaska, with emphasis on subsistence species. Sci Total Environ. 2007 Nov 15;387(1-3):3-27. Epub 2007 Sep 7. Review.
- Springen K. Pregnant Women: Eat More Fish or Not? Newsweek. Accessed online Feb 17, 2007 at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17177330/site/newsweek/
- State of Alaska (SOA). Bulletin No. 29, October 15, 2007. Fish Consumption Advice for Alaskans: A Risk Management Strategy to Optimize the Public’s Health ? Executive Summary. Accessed online February 24, 2008 at http://www.epi.alaska.gov/bulletins/docs/b2007_29.pdf
- State of Alaska (SOA). Bulletin No. 6, June 15, 2001. Mercury and National Fish Advisories Statement from Alaska Division of Public Health: Recommendations for Fish Consumption in Alaska. Accessed online February 24, 2008 at http://www.epi.hss.state.ak.us/bulletins/docs/b2001_06.htm
- State of Alaska Epidemiololgy Bulletin (SOAEB), Volume No. 11 Number 4, October 15, 2007. Fish Consumption Advice for Alaskans: A Risk Management Strategy to Optimize the Public’s Health Accessed online February 24, 2008 at http://www.epi.alaska.gov/bulletins/docs/rr2007_04.pdf.
- U.S. EPA. What You Need to Know about Mercury in Fish and Shellfish. Accessed online at http://www.epa.gov/waterscience/fish/advice/
- U.S. FDA. January 15, 2009. Draft Risk and Benefit Assessment Report of Quantitative Risk and Benefit Assessment of Consumption of Commercial Fish. Accessed online at http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~dms/mehgrb.html