A Closer Look At The Mercury Menace (Part III)

So it looks like the Chicago Tribune is completely satisfied that Michael Hawthorne’s latest story about mercury in seafood meets its high journalism standards, an interesting development given the paper’s once-proud lineage. Blogs now catalog the fired employees and describe a newsroom that “hope[s] against hope” the latest management “team knows what it’s doing.”

So while they sort that out, let’s take a look at the last installment in Hawthorne’s 2005 “Tribune Investigation” titled “The Mercury Menace.” This one ran under the headline, “How Safe is Tuna?”

Hawthorne begins this piece with a tried and true scare tactic. He dredges up an old 1970 story about a chemistry professor who tested canned tuna from his own pantry and found mercury levels that exceeded federal limits. Of course, he doesn’t explain right off the bat that those levels and those tests have nothing to do with tuna today, because the limit is not the same, and in fact no one was being harmed by normal consumption of tuna then, just as they aren’t now.

Oh… and here’s a little tease for you; nearly 80 paragraphs and 2,600 words later, the Tribune reveals it did its own tuna testing. Talk about burying the lead-tell us intrepid Trib scientists, what did you find? How safe is tuna? Ah, ah, ah… you’ll just have to wait to find out how dangerous that “Toxic Risk On Your Plate” is.

As the investigation into how safe tuna is begins, the article claims that the Food and Drug Administration arbitrarily classified canned light tuna as “low in mercury” according to an FDA meeting transcript. The results of quantifiable federal mercury testing are, and have been, available to reporters and the public for years. The testing publically reveals the level of mercury found in canned light tuna. Yet Hawthorne insists the determination was arbitrary. When readers are told that canned light tuna tested by the government had levels that measured 0.118 ppm-and that the federal limit is 1.0ppm and there’s a 1,000 percent safety factor on top of that, it’s hard to quibble with the “low mercury” definition. But of course, none of that is explained.

In the ninth paragraph, the sensational scare tactics jump into high gear as Hawthorne writes, “shoppers have no way of knowing whether the can of light tuna they buy at the store tonight is potentially risky.” Cue the scary, small market, local TV station music.

In the 10th paragraph, he notes that “not all tuna species contain the same amount of the toxic metal, which can harm children’s developing brains.” Yes, mercury can in fact harm children’s developing brains, but there is no evidence that mercury from normal consumption of commercial seafood has ever done that.

Later, the FDA explains that public health decisions are based on the best scientific evidence available at the time. Sounds like the Tribune could take a lesson from the much-vilified FDA and ensure the stories it publishes are in line with the best scientific evidence available at this time. While the Tribune continues to link to Hawthorne’s 2005 mercury series in articles as recent as this month, new science makes their antiquation look more and more ridiculous. Just last week, for example, a Harvard researcher published a report that looked at 25,000 mothers and babies and found that eating seafood during pregnancy had important and measurable benefits. A release from Harvard University Medical School announced, “These findings provide further evidence that omega-3 fatty acids found in fish and compounds in breast milk are beneficial to infant development” and that “the nutrient benefits of prenatal fish appeared to outweigh toxicant harm.”

As evidence that exposure to mercury from fish is harmful, Hawthorne cites research examined by the National Academy of Sciences. The research he is referring to comes from the Faroe Islands and includes a study of people who ate whale meat. Not to belabor the issue or put too fine a point on it but whales… are not fish.

In the 35th paragraph, the article refers back to the 1970 chemistry professor and his 0.75 ppm can of tuna, again bemoaning that his testing clearly exceeded the 38-year-old level that is no longer the standard.

After revisiting the professor’s story for what is now the third time in his three part series (twice in this article alone), he begins to focus on painting a picture of the problems associated with “industry leaders” meeting “privately” with FDA officials. The problem is, when it comes to meetings with the FDA, there is no such thing as a private meeting. As part of the Freedom of Information Act, everything that goes on in federal agencies (save CIA and Pentagon type projects) is reviewable by the public. In fact, when Mr. Hawthorne discuses having reviewed FDA “meeting transcripts” he is able to do this precisely because they are not “private.” They are subject to public review and despite inferences not part of a conspiracy.

And now, the moment you’ve been waiting for– the big reveal, the big expos ..the findings from the Tribune’s own mercury in canned tuna testing. Drum roll please. 2,600 words later, a mere handful of paragraphs from the end of the story, buried under a mountain of words, are these results: (the Tribune tested 18 cans of albacore, 18 cans of light, and 18 cans of gourmet tuna in a second round of testing).

  • “The gourmet cans showed low levels of mercury: 0.06 parts per million–even lower than regular canned light and far lower than the average reported by the tuna industry.”

  • “When the newspaper tested tuna steak made with yellowfin, it averaged 0.35.”
  • “Canned light tuna averaged 0.11 parts per million”
  • “albacore 0.30”

New headline for you: Tribune Tests Tuna and ALL Come Back Safe. Despite spending nearly 3 thousand words describing the perceived ills of canned tuna, the Tribune could have answered its own question in just one.

Let’s review. The headline reads “How Safe is Tuna?” The Tribune’s own test show the answer is; very. The cans tested would even pass the 38-year-old, out of date, standard that Hawthorne appears to be borderline obsessed with. The story goes out with a whimper as the very outfit that warned of a toxic risk on your plate failed to find one.

Since the Tribune insists on leaving active links to out of date stories, I will do them a favor and update this story for them. This paragraph can be found as the story concludes:

“Last year, the state of California sued the nation’s big three tuna producers, demanding they place warnings on cans of albacore and light tuna or post signs in grocery aisles to inform state residents that the products contain mercury. The state alleges the firms are violating a state law requiring business to warn people before exposing them to carcinogens or reproductive toxins. The case is continuing.”

The case has concluded and the state of California lost.