New York Times Falls Victim To Its Own Warning
Over at the New York Times, Jim Windolf astutely notes that the American media has a corrosive habit of fomenting hysteria over nonexistent health threats, and that we’d probably be better off tuning out the doomsayers and going about our lives. The irony is that Windolf rattles off a long list of these supposed nutritional dangers in the course of making his argument, but makes no distinction between nutrition advice rooted in sound science and mere myths propagated by agenda-driven activists and quack lifestyle gurus.
In fact, Windolf uncritically repeats one of the most destructive phony health scares in recent memory: the baseless myth that eating seafood like tuna is a threat to your health.
Windolf links to NRDC, an eco-activist group, to support this claim, which is both a missed opportunity and a teachable moment. It’s a missed opportunity to remind readers that not all sources are equally credible. The fear-mongering of the agenda-driven fringe, for example, does not warrant the same attention as the ever growing mountain of studies on the nutritional benefits of seafood from leading global health organizations like the UN, World Health Organization or even the Government’s own Dietary Guidelines. The hypothetical fears of the professional fundraisers at NRDC do not deserve equal footing with, say, Harvard University’s finding that 84,000 preventable deaths occur each year due to a low seafood consumption.
It’s a teachable moment because instead of throwing up his hands and resolving (even in jest) to ignore all nutrition advice, Windolf could have asked how we can do a better job of making sure the public is guided by the best science, and not the loudest quack.
Conveniently enough, a big part of that responsibility lays at the feet Windolf’s employers at the New York Times, which has trumpeted groundless fears about tuna on multiple occasions, including one story so error-ridden and out-of-line with accepted journalistic standards that the author was publicly admonished by the Times public editor.
As long as supposedly credible outlets like the Times continue to publish misleading articles on health—whether out of ideological sympathy with the activists pushing them, or a simple desire to milk clicks by scaring readers—the dynamic Windolf decries will continue, and public health will suffer.
More Dangerous Misinformation from Consumer Reports
More than a year after the Food and Drug Administration definitively called out Consumer Reports for its feckless and dangerous misinformation on tuna, the group continues to peddle the same pseudo-science to mothers and expectant women.
Consumer Reports packaged its latest attack on public health as a “safety alert”, but in fact it’s a warmed over version of the original, discredited story misleadingly presented as novel work.
The latest FDA advice is that pregnant women are advised to eat 2-3 servings of fish per week to help the brain and eye development of children. And fish consumption has been cited as a marquee dietary factor in preventable heart deaths, with Harvard University estimating 84,000 Americans die each year due to a low seafood diet.
Yet Consumer Reports continues to push hypothetical mercury concerns based on unsound research methods, despite the fact that there has never been a case of dietary mercury poisoning in the United States documented in any peer-reviewed medical literature. The FDA found that 56 ounces weekly of albacore tuna—that’s equivalent to 14-22 tuna sandwiches or more than 11 cans or 21 pouches of tuna)—can be eaten by the most sensitive population; pregnant women. For canned light tuna, that amount is closer to 164 ounces weekly.
Consumer Report’s misinformation drove the FDA to take the significant step of speaking out about the magazine’s harmful advice, calling it “limited in that it focuses exclusively on the mercury levels in fish without considering the known positive nutritional benefits attributed to fish…” The FDA statement goes on:
“[A]s a result, the methodology employed by Consumer Reports overestimates the negative effects and overlooks the strong body of scientific evidence published in the last decade.”
This strong body of evidence includes positive findings from the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the American Heart Association, all of which have concluded that the real health risk associated with fish is that people are eating perilously little of it.
Consumer Reports has been wrong before, but in those cases, when it warns readers about certain products—from stereos to toaster ovens, it’s not doing any active harm. What makes their obstinate error on tuna so dangerous is that it actively contributes to an ongoing health crisis, and one that hits our most vulnerable—children and expecting mothers—hardest of all.
A word of warning to reporters who might have come across a press release promoting a little-known study that purports to look at the benefits and risks associated with eating fish. The study claims it finds gaps in the scientific and nutrition understanding of seafood. But that is not in keeping with widely-accepted published, peer-reviewed research. The paper ignores the fact that the FDA recently published a definitive decade-long study on this exact subject that concluded the benefits of seafood far outweigh the risks, while the U.S. Dietary Guidelines came to the exact same conclusion.
A chart included in the piece is designed to illustrate the studies they reviewed. But according to the table that the authors produced there appears to be no positive associations with eating fish (and if there is a positive, there is also a “but” in the association description). Really? Despite decades of definitive studies on the subject this band of intrepid researchers can’t find anything positive to say about fish.
This type of agenda driven, research malpractice should be taken with a grain of salt.
And in case you think “agenda driven, research malpractice” is presumptuous, I offer you this bit of background; the lead auther of the study has openly campaigned as part of an anti-commercial seafood coalition with Mercury Policy Project, Sierra Club, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Working Group and Oceana – hardly the voice of independent research.
Time For An Update; Today.com Reports Yesterday’s Science
September 1, 2015
Health & Nutrition Editor
Dear Ms. Fernstrom,
Today.com’s recent article Eating fish 2-3 times a week is recommended: What about every day? enters into and an interesting and important discussion about seafood consumption in this country. By and large Linda Carroll’s reliance on experts guides her towards some useful information that may be able help your readers make informed dietary decisions.
However, her reporting fails by omission in some parts as well. She writes about limits on things like tuna for pregnant women. Keeping up with the latest science is a hallmark of good reporting and the very latest science from the FDA’s Net Effects Report (p.111) clearly concludes that old suggested limits of 6 oz of Albacore tuna per week for pregnant women are out of date. The latest study suggests 56 oz’s is the new most conservative limit. That’s 2 tuna sandwiches every day, every week for her entire pregnancy. If the question is “what about every day?” it is asked and answered.
Currently the FDA estimates pregnant women eat 1.89oz of seafood weekly. As written, “…experts say, eating seafood more than twice a week, for most people, can be healthful…” that applies to tuna and pregnant women. This important development goes unreported.
Likewise, inappropriate hyperbole enters into the piece when she writes, “some experts have suggested that we could empty the seas of fish by 2050 if we increase the amount we eat.” No legitimate fisheries management scientists “suggests” that. In fact the author of the original study that suggested pescatarial Armageddon by 2048 has long since backed off that predication. In fact in 2009 marine ecologist Boris Worm of Dalhousie University published an updated study in the journal Science that found him suggesting he plans to be “hosting a seafood party” in 2048 instead of mourning the loss of all marine ecosystems.
Ms. Carroll poses an interesting question with her headline but did not answer it with the most up to date science. We ask that you update this article now that you have been made aware of the facts.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Vice President, Communications
National Fisheries Institute
Accuracy In Omega-3 Study Reporting Wins The Day
We spend a lot of time in this blog calling out journalists for getting things wrong. And let’s be honest there’s no shortage of agenda-driven reporters who endorse hyperbole and half-truths as standard operating procedure. And still others who are comfortable reading a line or two from a press release and simply printing it without… well… actually doing any reporting.
But today we see Washington Post reporter Lena Sun making some important and salient points in her reporting that suggests she did more than just read a release and craft an embellished headline. In writing about a new Omega-3 study Sun notes that, “Omega 3 is still good for the brain. But ‘fish oil supplements just don’t cut it.” Sun highlights experts who say, “a much better bet for all-around brain and heart health… is eating foods naturally high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon…”
Sun could have erroneously touted the idea that omega-3’s are worthless or falsely claimed that the study was rewriting the, already well researched, book on omega-3’s. But she didn’t, she got it right.
I know it sounds strange to applaud a journalist for doing something she’s supposed to do but how many times have we seen terrible reporting from the likes of the pseudo-journalists at Rodale? So, often that when a reporter gets it right we feel the need to stand up and applaud.
More Evidence Seafood Fraud Doesn’t Pay
Recently there’s been an ongoing discussion about how to deal with fish fraud. Knowledgeable members of the seafood community know that enforcement is the key and that crafting new laws or changing what you call one fish or another is an uninformed exercise in futility and not a real solution.
The Justice Department recently reminded a company named Alphin Brothers Inc. how much of a solution enforcement really is.
You see, Alphin Brothers Inc. thought mislabeling shrimp was a good idea. Prosecutors thought a felony conviction, a $100,000 fine, forfeiture of 20,000 pounds of shrimp and three years’ probation was an even better idea.
Consumer Reports’ Contradications
If you’re a Consumer Reports reader, you’re hearing this week that shrimp is a superfood – high in protein, low in fat and calories, and a great source of vitamins and valuable minerals. Ahh, yes, and maybe soon Consumer Reports will “reveal” that drinking water is good for you, or that Barack Obama won his second term as President.
Doctors and dietitians have been recommending shrimp as part of a healthy diet for years, while Consumer Reports has confused consumers with contradictory and sensational reports about the shellfish.
In fact, Consumer Reports illustrates how marginalized its reporting is by beginning the new shrimp report with, “If you read our recent investigation, ‘How Safe is Your Shrimp?’ you might be inclined to avoid these crustaceans altogether.” It’s embarrassing that the organization admits it scared readers away from the very food it’s now urging them to eat. But, hey, that’s Consumer Reports – the gold standard of journalism.
In April the organization is warning consumers of all the “downsides” of shrimp, admittedly scaring them away from the food altogether. And in August, it’s highlighting all the nutritional benefits of shrimp, even providing a recipe from the CR test kitchen’s in-house chef Claudia Gallo that is “colorful and healthy.”
This time, Consumer Reports got it right, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see another inaccurate scare-story about this very subject in a few months’ time. It’s simple: Consumer Reports can’t be trusted, especially when it comes to important nutrition information.
The Rest of The Story: What The New York Times Doesn’t Want You To Read
When it was time to talk about commercial seafood The New York Times didn’t call the seafood community, it called Greenpeace. Then it gave Greenpeace a 586 word column to spout their misinformed fundraising rhetoric and when we called them on it and asked for equal space they offered us a 200 word blurb in the comment string. Thanks New York Times, that’s a tremendous demonstration of journalistic balance. What follows is what we would have contributed had the New York Times’ “Room for Debate” section actually had room for real debate:
There is a rich irony that comes with Greenpeace lecturing anyone on “standards of responsibility.” The group that recently trampled on Peru’s famed Nazca lines, a stunt that “scarred one of the country’s most treasured national symbols,” uses this forum to attack commercial fishing with its usual brand of unchecked hyperbole. Far from “ruining” the oceans, the seafood community not only sets high standards it drives adherence to those standards and pushes for the innovations that will be the future of fishing.
Tuna companies, often the focus of Greenpeace’s attacks, have zero tolerance for illegal labor practices. They recognize the challenges associated with labor in some areas of the seafood sector, while demonstrating a consistent commitment to taking on those challenges and pushing governments to focus on enforcement. For responsible companies like Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea and Starkist these are real world issues they are dedicated to addressing, not fund raising fodder that whimsically peppers opinion columns.
Greenpeace does a tremendous job of pointing out things they have a problem with but make no demonstrable effort to offer solutions.
The seafood community and its reasonable NGO partners are committed to both identifying challenges and working to address them. The very same tuna canners that Greenpeace vilifies have partnered with WWF to spearhead the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF.)
On these pages Greenpeace complains about turtle and shark bycatch but fails to note that ISSF invests literally millions of dollars every year in at-sea research aimed at bycatch mitigation. Now more than 90% of turtles caught by tuna purse seiners are released alive. And best practices designed for sharks can save 960,000 a year, in the Indian Ocean alone. Those committed to real seafood sustainability bring results to the table not just rhetoric. But then again the scientific experts at ISSF have more than 342 years of collective experience in fisheries management.
While Greenpeace complains about traceability methods it conveniently ignores the fact that ISSF already requires companies to maintain credible traceability systems.
Credibility and responsibility go hand in hand. Incredibly irresponsible commentary based on thinly sourced rhetoric serves to do nothing for the conversation about seafood sustainability but everything to marginalize an activist group that has been relegated to making noise in the parking lot while others are making real advances.
Vice President, Communications
National Fisheries Institute
Greenpeace Pushes Annual Fundraising Tool
Greenpeace is touting the latest in its long line of opaque, subjective, and hopelessly flawed “reports” on retail seafood. This year’s model may have lost the juvenile aesthetic and top hat donning cartoon fish of previous iterations, but the substance—or lack thereof—remains much the same. It is still first and foremost a fundraising tool and evidence of that can be found in its erratic methodology and narrative.
Where Greenpeace’s “CATO report” does break new ground it is highly troubling. No longer content to hide its dangerous ulterior agenda behind a thin veneer of inference and insinuation, Greenpeace is now openly calling for Americans to “eat less seafood.” This not only destroys whatever shreds of credibility Greenpeace had left, but puts its fringe activists at odds with just about every medical and nutritional expert in world including the Food and Drug Administration.
It’s one thing to advocate for misguided shopping practices, but when it actively abets an ongoing public health crisis that is impairing fetal cognitive development and contributing to tens of thousands of preventable deaths each year, Greenpeace is crossing a dangerous line.
The rest of the “report” consists of the same kind of unsupported and ideologically motivated reasoning we’ve come to expect from Greenpeace. The document purports to rank seafood retailers according to objective empirical standards (right down to the decimal point), but provides zero explanation on how scores are actually calculated. This is especially ironic considering “transparency” is one of the criteria on which retailers are judged, a value Greenpeace appears to support only selectively.
Where Greenpeace does give readers breadcrumbs about its methodology, it openly contradicts itself. Consider for instance that the “report” essentially admits that Greenpeace’s seafood “Red List” is useless. The list is “not comprehensive” while at the same time fish appearing on it can be sourced in a “responsible” manner, by the group’s own admission. In other words, if a fish is not on the list it can still be bad, and if it is on the list it can still be good.
Similarly, in virtually the same breath, the “report” goes from urging retailers to source from Fishery Improvement Projects (FIPs) to saying that sourcing from FIPs just isn’t good enough. As anyone who has ever tried to engage Greenpeace on seafood sustainability knows, nothing is ever good enough. That’s why they have refused to take part in the invaluable sustainability work of the scientists, fishery experts, and environmental stakeholders at the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation.
In this year’s report Greenpeace editorializes on labor practices without noting that our members do not and will not tolerate labor abuses or unfair practices, either inside their companies and or among their suppliers and partners.
Retailers are starting to realize the futility of dealing with the strong-arm tactics and capricious standards of Greenpeace, and have wisely stopped participating. There is simply no upside to negotiating with activists who are happy to rake companies over the coals whether they cooperate or not.
Worst of all, even as Greenpeace unscientifically and arbitrarily ranks retailers for their practices, it refuses to conduct environmental or economic impact studies of its own preferred fishery policies—perhaps because they know the methods they favor would hurt both the environment and ordinary American consumers.
The latest “CATO report” proves that Greenpeace has yet to learn from years of embarrassing missteps, and that they’ve moved onto even more dangerous ground in encouraging Americans to eat less seafood at a time when low seafood consumption is already putting Americans at risk. Retailers and the press have begun to take notice. Greenpeace donors will likely be next.
More of the Same from Safe Catch
You may have recently seen reporting about something called Safe Catch, it’s promoting a seafood product that is actually a solution… in search of a problem. News about “a new tuna manufacturer called Safe Catch” is more like a repacking of a failed product; Safe Harbor Certified Seafood.
Why has the company’s first attempt at profiting off mercury fear-mongering been such a disappointment? To begin, the very industry Safe Harbor so aggressively defamed (with claims that hundreds of thousands of children are at risk for mercury poisoning) are the very ones they wanted as their customer base. Whoops. So, while that hasn’t been a success for Safe Harbor, this latest endeavor is another chance to use mercury-testing technology by targeting a new audience to scare: the premium health food buyer.
But inherent problems with Safe Harbor’s business model exist for Safe Catch as well: the mercury levels in commercial seafood are just the same as they were nearly 100 years ago, no one in the United States is getting sick from mercury in fish (there has never been a case of mercury-poisoning from the normal consumption of commercial seafood in any published medical journal), and testing tuna – that have contained trace amounts of mercury since the beginning of time – does not add any value to a customer, nor does it make the product safer.
FDA’s limit for mercury in seafood is 1.0 parts per million (ppm), with a ten-fold safety-factor built in, meaning a fish would actually have to exceed dose levels of 10.0 ppm to approach any adverse effects. According to the FDA, canned light tuna has 0.128 ppm and canned white tuna has 0.35 ppm, far below the FDA’s threshold and any levels associated with harm.
In fact, last June the FDA released its Net Effects Report, based on 10 years of peer-reviewed published science that was used as the basis for the updated draft advice to pregnant women about eating seafood. The report found that pregnant women could safely consume 164 ounces of canned light tuna and 56 ounces of canned albacore tuna every week. And that’s regular old canned tuna, not some expensive brand that makes low mercury claims.
Let’s put the levels of mercury in canned tuna in perspective. If the 1ppm FDA limit is akin to the 55 MPH speed limit then run of the mill Albacore Tuna is going 16.5 MPH and Light Tuna is going 5.5MPH.
Meanwhile, Safe Catch’s website is hard to look at for anyone in the legitimate health or nutrition community:
- While they bash brands that “precook away nutrients” doctors, dietitians and groups like the American Heart Association call canned tuna (the pre-cooked variety) one of the healthiest foods on the planet that you should be eating.
- They go on to congratulate themselves as being, “The only brand with a tuna that meets Consumer Reports ‘Low Mercury’ criteria for pregnant moms and children. The strictest mercury limits of any brand.” They forget to mention, however, that the FDA blasted Consumer Reports for its last misleading report on canned tuna saying, “the methodology employed by Consumer Reports overestimates the negative effects and overlooks the strong body of scientific evidence published in the last decade.”
- Safe Catch also boasts that it’s, “The only brand with a tuna that meets Environmental Working Group’s “Best Seafood” criteria for mercury levels. Eat pure. Live pure.” Ah, yes, it’s always good to have the professional fear monger and anti-vaccination-conspiracy-theory-pusher, promoting your product.
If marketing is able to convince American shoppers to pay more for a product that is no different before or after testing, perhaps science can convince them that the lightness in their wallet counts as weight loss.