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You may come across a Health Day article about the UNLV study we told you about last week. You'll remember it started with that Las Vegas Journal Review piece that we worked to put some perspective on. The problem with the Health Day article, as you can see in our letter below, is that it essentially reads like a press release. There's no input from any voices that might add balance. Most important, the story doesn't consider the report negatively impact public health by unnecessarily scaring people away from a healthy protein that is high in omega-3s.
In short, it doesn't sound like a lot of healthy thought went into the reporting of this story.
In response to our letter, the Health Day editors let us know they would commission a new piece. I spent a good deal of time talking to an intrepid reporter who appeared to be doing the due diligence that the original report lacked. Keep in mind it's not hard to find the lead author of the study saying that in reality, despite his own research into mercury, "problems" might present themselves only if a consumer was eating canned tuna for every single meal, every single day, continually.
Here's the rub. When we pointed these problems out to Health Day they jumped at the chance to dig more into the subject, but they didn't pull the old article from circulation or try to update the content as if they were a traditional wire service. So here we sit with a rudderless piece on mercury in canned tuna bouncing about the internet as unsuspecting Health Day subscribers like Business Week repurpose and publish the story unaware of the problems associated with it.
February 5, 2009
Barry Hoffman, Editor-in-Chief
Dear Mr. Hoffman,
I am writing to draw your attention to some serious issues found in your story "Tests show top tuna brands have high mercury levels." The story lacks scientific perspective and journalistic balance. No one from the seafood community or any of the tuna canners that the National Fisheries Institute represents were contacted for this story. We ask that you remove it from your service while you thoroughly research the issue and make appropriate contacts with stake holders and scientists alike.
The fact is consumers should not be concerned by this report. Canned tuna continues to be a safe and healthy source of protein packed with heart-healthy omega-3's. The report is very clear that in all of the brands tested the average methyl mercury level was well below the FDA limit.
The EPA level referenced in the report is not relevant. The EPA levels are applicable to sport-caught fish found in lakes, streams and other internal waterways where the EPA has jurisdiction. The FDA level is designed for commercial seafood like tuna. The EPA's matrix for its level was developed using something called ambient water criteria. That standard measures the amount of dissolved mercury in water as an approximation for the amount of mercury fish might absorb. It would make sense that its level would focus on "environmental" standards as opposed to "food" standards. The EPA level is designed to work in conjunction with the agency's mandate to regulate emissions, not food.
It is critical to point out that the methyl mercury found in seafood, like canned tuna, is predominantly the result-not of emissions-but of naturally occurring processes found in the ocean like underwater volcanic activity. For some reason, the authors of the study seem to have obscured this scientific fact, a common conflation used by environmental activists. In fact, the California Courts have ruled twice against the State Attorney General over a signage issue on the grounds that virtually all the trace amounts of methyl mercury found in canned tuna is "naturally occurring."
In expressing concern that any of the cans supposedly exceeded the FDA's level, a key fact is ignored. The FDA's level of 1.0ppm has a built-in 1,000% safety factor also known as an uncertainty factor. The FDA says such a standard, "was established to limit consumers' methyl mercury exposure to levels 10 times lower than the lowest levels associated with adverse effects." This means a single can would have to exceed the FDA's level by ten times to begin to even approach a level of concern for the average consumer. Even the highest levels reported in this study did not come remotely close to that point.
Another concern we have with our initial review of this study is that throughout the report the authors refer to levels of Hg. Hg is a measurement of total mercury while the focus for fish (via FDA and EPA work) is MeHg methyl mercury. Hg can be made up of elemental mercury and methyl mercury. The human body quickly excretes Hg. To combine the two has the potential to artificially inflate the levels.
What's more, the report says "recent studies have established a link between heavy fish consumption and adverse health effects." However, the studies they cite are far from "recent." In fact the latest cited in this section is 1997 and the earliest is 1985. Published, independent, peer-reviewed reports that contradict those findings from 2002, 2004, 2007-among others-were not mentioned. The study even misreports the percentage of canned tuna consumed by Americans each year, over-reporting by as much as 18%, a fact that should shed considerable doubt on the author's attention to detail and surmise that participants in the Women Infant and Children's (WIC) program might be at greater risk from tuna consumption. Again, the vast body of scientific literature instead has concluded that Americans as a whole simply don't get enough seafood in their diet in order to enjoy the full health benefit.
This single study in no way changes the conclusion of the FDA's Report of Quantitative Risk and Benefit Assessment of Consumption of Commercial Fish released in January 2009 that showed, for instance, children eating fish provided a 99.9 percent modest benefit in brain and verbal development; 0.1 percent modest risk. It also does not change the fact that an independent Harvard University study published in the Journal of The American Medical Association found, "for major health outcomes among adults, based on the strength of the evidence and the potential magnitudes of effect, the benefits of fish intake exceed the potential risks. For women of childbearing age, benefits of modest fish intake, excepting a few selected species, also outweigh risks."
The overwhelming majority of science finds the benefits of eating seafood and high omega-3 fish, like canned tuna, outweigh any concerns associated with the trace amount of methyl mercury found in fish.
A failure to highlight the fact that the average Hg level for all brands was well below the FDA's level and that the study does not report on the fact that there is a 1,000% safety factor built in to that level would be an egregious failure in reporting this story. Likewise, we would expect your reporting to include another important fact left out of this study-there have been no cases of mercury toxicity from the normal consumption of commercial seafood in this country ever reported in peer reviewed scientific literature.
We are disappointed that your reporter failed to live up to the accepted journalism standard of balance and did little more than reprint UNLV talking points.
We look forward to reading a thorough revision of this report.
National Fisheries Institute