Consumer Reports Gears Up For Another Tuna Tale
June 25, 2014
101 Truman Avenue, Yonkers,NY – 10703-1057
Dear Ms. Wilson-Spencer,
Thank you for reaching out to the National Fisheries Institute as you conduct research on tuna. It is our sincerest hope that Consumer Reports intends to do a more thorough, balanced and science-based job of reporting on tuna than it has in the past. Previous reports on tuna have been not only a disappointment from a journalistic standpoint but revealed an agenda rife with misinformation and mischaracterization that can only be described as intentional:
Per your questions we do not provide member sales figures or projected sales figures. Nor do we compare or forecast market share earned by member companies.
The latest numbers on per capita consumption of canned tuna show Americans eat 2.4 pounds per year, making it the second most popular seafood item. We estimate that approximately 70% of that consumption is light meat and 30% is white meat.
In terms of the seafood marketplace, approximately 85% of seafood consumed in this country is imported and the Commerce Department maintains a commercial fisheries trade data base that we encourage you to visit for more details.
Nearly every other report about tuna produced by Consumer Reports has maintained a disproportionate focus on mercury, we also encourage you to research the latest FDA/EPA draft guidance on eating seafood for pregnant women. The advice is based on a review of 110 independent, published, peer-reviewed studies and rather than highlighting limits on seafood the advice now encourages eating two to three servings of seafood each week, including canned tuna. This essential shift in messaging based on review of published science is not unlike the conclusion reached by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, the benefits of consuming seafood far outweigh the risks, even for pregnant women.
We encourage Consumer Reports to seek out responsible, independent researchers, doctors and dietitians in order to understand how dramatically the science and communication approach about mercury in seafood has changed. There are literally hundreds of independent studies, not only referenced by the FDA but cited by the World Health Organization, that clearly demonstrate the net benefit gained from eating seafood, like tuna.
With this remarkable scientific library as evidence, please be aware that hyperbolic reporting about mercury in seafood not only hurts consumers via misinformation but marginalizes Consumer Reports as a resource.
Since we are engaged in a dialog, we have some questions for Consumer Reports:
- What Environmental Non-Government Organizations have you consulted during your latest inquiry into tuna?
- Have you consulted former Consumer Reports employee Ned Groth on this effort?
- Given the FDAs recent concern that exaggerated risk about seafood has caused a drop in consumption, does Consumer Reports intend to include information about the risks of not increasing seafood in the diet?
Be advised we plan to publish and promote this letter, while making media critics and the independent scientific community aware of Consumer Reports intent to again report on tuna.
Vice President, Communications
National Fisheries Institute
Tinfoil Hat Brigade Wants To Be A Resource For Reporters
Its been two weeks since the FDA came out with its new draft guidance for pregnant women on eating seafood and theres been a flood of reporting about it:
- Wall Street Journal FDA to Increase Calls for More Fish Consumption
- TimeFDA: Pregnant Women Should Eat More Fish
- New York Times Pregnant Women Advised to Eat More Fish
- Health Day Pregnant or breast-feeding women urged to eat more fish
The new draft advice that has been reported on is clear about one thing; the need for pregnant women to eat more fish. The reports scientific assessment is nearly 300 pages long and relies on a review of 110 independent, published, peer-revived studies. It is an impressive tome that took nearly a decade to complete.
Enter the Environmental Working Group and the Mercury Policy Project. It took this dynamic duo 15 days to decide they didnt like the draft advice and were going to pout about it in such a way to make themselves appear even more outside the mainstream, science-based conversation than they usually are. In the face of 10 years worth of review and 110 studies, EWG & MPP announce that the Food & Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are wrong based on information EWG & MPP mined from a dozen cherry picked studies dating back to 2004.
Lets put their latest scientifically feeble salvo in perspective, shall we?
In 2010 the USDA & U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reviewed about 40 studies and determined the benefits of seafood outweighed mercury issues.
In 2011 the World Health Organization reviewed about 150 studies and essentially came to the same conclusion.
Now the FDA & EPA have reviewed 110 studies and, no surprise, the message is fundamentally the same.
Regardless of this mountain of evidence from independent researchers and reviewers EWG & MPP continue to complain because the facts, the scientific facts, dont match their agenda driven narrative. Even when public health experts say scaring pregnant women away from seafood hurts them, they persist. Keep in mind their point person on this issue Ned Groth, the poor misguided Jenny McCarthy of this issue, is the same individual who admitted to a reporter that he made policy recommendations based not on actual exposure risk but on stuff he heard about a friends grandson in New Jersey.
EWG & MPP and not reliable sources of information on this topic, they are fringe activists who find themselves further and further outside the tent because they are unwilling to accept facts that contradict their fantasy.
Reporters are urged to use only genuine, independent, science-based resources for stories about seafood and mercury.
Health Advice and Journalistic Responsibility
After a few days of blog and twitter banter that saw a hyper-defensive Michael Hawthorne refusing to acknowledge and or correct his now comically slanted reporting, on the FDA’s new advice to pregnant women, we decided that perhaps a round of real editorial oversight was in order.
June 13, 2014
Dear Ms. Hirt,
This week, in announcing new draft advice on seafood consumption for American moms, the FDAs top medical expert told reporters that scientific research developed over the past decade strongly demonstrates the health benefits that accrue from the consumption of fish far outweigh any risk. Asked specifically for the main takeaway from FDA, he said: The most important message here is to consume more fish.
Your reporter, Michael Hawthorne, took part in that press conference and here is how he described it to readers in his lead:
Eating seafood generally is considered good for you, but the catch is some kinds of fish tend to be contaminated with high levels of brain-damaging mercury.
Meanwhile, many of the most popular seafood choices for Americans provide relatively low amounts of the fatty acids that stimulate brain development and help prevent heart disease.
That sort of ulterior, wink-and-nudge insinuation that eating fish is harmful has been a hallmark of Hawthornes slanted reporting on this issue for many years now. But whats especially irresponsible about this latest piece is that it comes as the FDA is trying to overcome a decades worth of alarmist rhetoric from fringe activists and fund-raising eco-groups that has caused fish consumption among pregnant and breastfeeding women to drop to just 20 percent of what FDA says it should be.
Another way of putting it is that when consumers, and moms in particular, are presented with inaccurate emphasis on brain damage and neurotoxin, they often curtail or eliminate seafood from their familys diet. The resultaccording to some of the hundreds of studies FDA and other national and international health organizations have relied on to assess the net effects of seafood consumptionis lower overall IQ scores for children (particularly in verbal IQ), and sharply increased cardiovascular risk for adults, leading to preventable heart attacks and strokes.
That makes seafood unique among all the various nutritional targets of activist attacks. Stop drinking soda pop or eating processed snacks and nothing bad will happen to you. But if you stop eating fish, children and adults alike face discernibly poorer health outcomes.
Thats why the standard for balanced, accurate, and responsible reporting ought to be at its very highest on public health stories of this kind. Yet Hawthorne persists in distorting the facts, hyping theoretical risks, slanting his sourcing, and obscuring crucial information from readers. Let me present some specifics:
— He declares in the story that Studies have shown that exposure to mercury in the womb, mostly from fish eaten by women, can irreversibly damage the brain before a child is born, causing subtle delays in walking and talking as well as decreased attention span and memory. No such studies are cited, nor is the 250+ page, peer-reviewed scientific report that underpins the new FDA advice, which explicitly says, Beneficial net effects were consistently associated with consumption during pregnancy that exceeded to some extent 12 ounces or two servings of fish per week and On a population basis, average neurodevelopment in this country is estimated to benefit by nearly 0.7 of an IQ point (95% C.I. of 0.39 1.37 IQ points) from maternal consumption of commercial fish.
— In a story published nearly six years ago, Hawthorne wrote, studies have shown that exposure to mercury in the womb, mostly from fish eaten by mothers, can irreversibly damage the brain before birth, causing subtle delays in walking and talking as well as decreased attention span and memory. How did that apparent self-plagiarism get past editors and how do you justify it in light of the voluminous, countervailing research since then?
— One of Hawthornes marque sources for this latest piece was the fundraising group, Environmental Defense Fund, which has no medical or nutritional expertise whatsoever. Actual medical groups that urge increased fish consumption like the American Heart Association, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) were withheld from readers. In fact, ACOG this week alerted its members to the new advice, saying Since the FDA and the EPA issued their last joint advisory in 2004, further information has become available that suggests that consumption of low-mercury seafood can be particularly beneficial during pregnancy, with benefits including improved neurodevelopmental outcomes. FDA and EPA report that pregnant women currently consume below this level.
— Hawthorne made zero mention of the far-ranging recent scientific research that was the primary basis for FDAs updated guidance. When we pressed him on this point, he cited a single outlier study.
— One of the recent studies that Hawthorne obscures from readers, done by the federal government, showed that some 84,000 cardiac-related deaths could be prevented each year with proper servings of fish in the diet.
— Another long-term NIH study showed that children whose moms cut back on seafood during pregnancy had significantly lower developmental and IQ outcomes. Dont readers deserve to know those critical facts in a story that is purportedly about weighing risks and benefits?
As the leading seafood association, we would have been glad to point all this out to Hawthorne prior to publication but he never reached out. When we tried to cite some of it to him after the story ran, he replied that we were reflexively attacking, DC-style.
In light of these demonstrable editorial concerns we would appreciate a review of Mr. Hawthornes work and any reaction you might be able to offer.
Vice President, Communications
National Fisheries Institute
Has Trib reporter Hawthorne Joined the Ranks of Jenny McCarthy?
This week the FDA and EPA announced they had evaluated 110 published, peer-reviewed studies and concluded that pregnant women need to eat 4 times as much seafood as they currently do in order to realize the important nutrition benefits. This comes in the wake of the USDAs review of 37 studies that informed the Dietary Guidelines, which concluded, the benefits of consuming seafood far outweigh the risks, even for pregnant women.
Then, Chicago Tribune reporter Michael Hawthorne, a long-time mercury in seafood fearmonger, wrote about the announcement. Buuuuuut, his lead didnt quite match the news. In fact, his first sentence did not mention the fact that the FDAs new advice encourages women to eat four times as much seafood as they currently do. It did however mention that some fish contain high levels of brain-damaging mercury.
Really, Michael? Thats the lead?
A review of 110 studies shows pregnant women need to eat more seafood and the FDA/EPA begins encouraging women to do so and thats your lead? Odd how that wasnt the lead in the LA Times, Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, Time or Health Day or any of the other several hundred stories written on this subject.
That kind of reporting reminds me of vaccines-cause-autism spokeswoman Jenny McCarthy. In the face of overwhelming evidence of a dramatic change in the scientific narrative, still fearmongers cling to one-off studies and antiquated rhetoric because sticking to old assertions means they dont have to say they were wrong. Or in the case of Hawthorne they dont have to say that their sources, their cronies, their buddies are misguided, frothing activists and not level-headed scientists who let the facts dictate their conclusions.
Hawthorne took to twitter yesterday to note that, Mercury levels drop in women while fish consumption remains level. Suggests women making smarter choices. This activist talking point spouted by the supposedly impartial journalist begs the question; did he even read the FDA/EPA report? Consumption remains level,thats the real problem. Hello? The problem isnt the mercury levels. The report says pregnant women eat only 1.8 ounces of seafood a week and they need to quadruple that. The low consumption level is keeping pregnant women from getting all the benefits of seafood because again quoting the ummmm USDA (you may have heard of them), the benefits of consuming seafood far outweigh the risks, even for pregnant women.
Hawthorne writes 173 words before easing in this quote, Its become clearer and clearer that there are significant benefits (from eating seafood) in terms of health and development for the fetus and young children, Stephen Ostroff, the FDAs acting chief scientist, said during a conference call with reporters. There are so many women that are missing out on the benefits.
Burying the lead anyone?
True journalists report the facts. Fact; the FDAs new draft guidance is a ground breaking shift from its outdated pervious message and it’s one backed up by an avalanche of independent, peer-reviewed science. But instead of simply reporting that, Hawthorns juvenile refusal to embrace this current and important reality, a la Jenny McCarthy, leaves him looking petulant and obsessive.
The following is a quote from a column in The Nation, about a year ago, focused on the media coverage McCarthy receives but if you didnt know that they could have been talking about Hawthorne a day ago:
- False equivalency is one of journalisms great pitfalls, and in an effort to achieve balance, reporters often obscure the truth.
The only difference is Hawthorne doesnt appear to seek misguided balance but rather the ability to say he was right, in the face of overwhelming evidence he and his most common sources are wrong.
Burying The Lead
In case you came across yesterdays Farm Raised vs. Wild-Caught Fish headline on NorthJersey.com, let us save you some valuable time by summing it up: all fish, farm-raised or wild-caught, are a healthy choice, packed with protein, vitamins and nutrients.
After crusading through 1,415 words loaded with inaccuracies and hyperbole from activists, and flashy headlines, we found 68 words at the bottom of page-two that conclude:
OK. So, which is the right choice?
“At the end of the day, fish in general is a good choice,” said Rebecca Hirsch, oncology dietitian at the John Theurer Cancer Center at Hackensack University Medical Center.
Indeed, experts say, fish is generally so healthy it is packed with protein, vitamins and nutrients that the benefits of eating contaminated fish way outweighs the risk. “It is so much better than a Big Mac,” nutritionist Berger said.
Talk about burying the lead.
Carting Away the Embarrassing Irony
In case you missed the industry trade press today theres an interesting twist to the Greenpeace retailer rankings. The groups Oceans Director goes off on NFI and MSC. His take on critiques of Greenpeaces report is more than just a little ironic.
First he blasts NFI for ignoring the science. Meanwhile hes ignoring the fact that the main criticism of the report is that it is not a science-based review in any way, shape, or form. In fact, it appears to be secretly crafted in a well apportioned conference room by guys sporting nifty tee shirts.
He then takes aim at the Marine Stewardship Council, while citing MSCs thorough, rigorous approach. Again, missing the clear and demonstrable criticism of the report that no matter how much you do it will never be enough for Greenpeace. Wait, youre thorough and rigorous? Sorry, you still dont meet our standards, which are apparently crafted by magic gnomes who I am sure are also wearing nifty tee shirts.
UNs Food and Agriculture Organization Offers Fish Facts Reality Check
Remember not too many years ago when blearily-eyed activist groups were tearing at their collective hair with an appropriate chorus of hyperbolic why, why, why in response to a study that claimed the oceans would be empty by 2048? It turns out this erroneous prediction of an aquatic, jellyfish apocalypse was even more off the mark than first thought.
Enter the FAOs latest oceans snap shot where it turns out 71% of all fisheries are fished within sustainable levels #oops.
Please, Give Us Your Money And Dont Take Us Seriously
Successful halftime acts at the Super Bowl often follow up their hit-making, jaw dropping or nostalgic performances with the announcement of a world tour. During the game iTunes struggles to keep pace with downloads and afterwards Springsteen, Madonna and Bruno Mars let their fans know theyre coming to town soon. Its a one-two performance and marketing punch.
Last week Greenpeace launched is Carting Away the Oceans (CATO) report and followed it up with
–Four meek protesters at one seafood company.
–A few harassing phone calls destined for voicemail obscurity.
–And online supporters crafting well-reasoned retorts.
In 1971 Greenpeace was a group of determined activists squaring off against a 5.2 megaton hydrogen bomb. Now its supporters launch embarrassingly juvenile tweets from the comfort of their parents basement. But not before doing a little online shopping for activist gear, after being reminded they can, save some green on Greenpeace merchandise and help protect the planet at the same time!
Its hard to take Greenpeace and CATO seriously when they beg you not to.
Decimal Points Make Everything More Official
The painfully redundant and ineffective Greenpeace fundraising tool known as the Carting Away The Oceans report has been released and this time it has decimal points. Once a cartoonish mishmash of futile rhetoric about grocery store seafood sourcing policy, coupled with an unscientific ranking of stores, the report has been cleaned up a bit. While it doesnt quite fit into its big boy pants yet, it does have decimal points which makes everything more official.
The report still uses a completely non-transparent system to apply random rankings to retailers and then delves into discussion about those rankings as if they have some sort of actual standing in the real world. Greenpeace crows about how, of the top five grocery stores that lead in seafood sustainability for 2014four have performed well enough to surpass the 7.0/10 mark and earn a green rating. What they dont mention is that the rating means nothing and no one cares.
Dont misunderstand, at this point in this groundhog day-like campaign, Greenpeace doesnt think actual consumers wait anxiously by the printer for the new report so they can pour over it with a pen, noting key points that will influence their next purchase. No, thats not happening and Greenpeace doesnt think thats whats happening unless its shockingly more delusional that most assume. The real audience is big money contributors and foundations who Greenpeace must impress with all of its progress. But instead the foundations get quasi-fiction peppered with ratings created by a secret Rube Goldberg decimal generating machine.
No matter what grocers do it will never be enough to gain and keep a high rating. The reports former golden boys routinely find themselves facing hurdles or finding out theres still much more to be done despite all the work they do day in and day out to maintain a sustainable seafood supply.
Whats more Greenpeaces childish, sibling-like sniping towards the respected conservation group WWF is embarrassingly evident in their ranking of Kroger. The chain has had a long running and successful relationship with WWF. A relationship the petulant Greenpeace dismisses as having promoted minimal improvement and earned them the worst performing title in the Red List category. Once again WWF is in the boardroom making significant progress with companies while Greenpeace is in the parking lot protesting in costumes and being ignored by the multitudes who are embarrassed for them.
Recognizing its own ineffectiveness and continuing track into obscurity the report expands its rhetoric to any issue that might pique someones attention; GMO, Human Rights, Bering Sea canyons. Next year we expect at least one page on Grocery store policies towards Beyonc.
Carting Away The Oceans just carted away 20 minutes of my time that I will never get back.
Accused Fish Fraudster Makes FDAs Most Wanted List
Did you know the FDA Office of Criminal Investigations has a most wanted fugitives list? The tradition of Most Wanted lists began with the FBI in 1950. Approved by the FBI director himself, the list has featured more than 500 fugitives, 94% of whom have been captured or located. Whether the posters are at your local post office or on line they are a powerful tool used by federal law enforcement and send a message that they are serious about these criminals.
The latest edition of the FDAs most wanted list includes Nhan Huhn Dat Nguyen. He is accused of fish fraud, that’s right, importing one fish but labeling it as another. 12 individuals or corporations have already either pleaded guilty or been convicted on charges related to this criminal conspiracy.
Putting accused fraudsters like this on the FDA’s most wanted list shows a seriousness and focus on this issue that highlights the need for more enforcement, not more laws. The more criminals see charges of fish fraud showing up the most wanted list, the more they’ll think twice about it.