The Activist-Led Panic Against Mercury In Fish Is Harming The American Diet
This Op-Ed was published in Forbes on 9/19/14:
GUEST POST WRITTEN BY Gavin Gibbons
Mr. Gibbons is vice president of the National Fisheries Institute.
Next week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is hosting a three-day forum focused on the increasingly politicized topic of mercury contamination in fish. Why should you care? Because of all the scattered skirmishes in the ongoing food wars from soda sizes to trans fats, the activist-led attack on seafood is unique. That’s because if you stop eating those other foods, nothing bad is going to happen to you. But if you stop eating seafood, you’re actually putting yourself at risk.
This warning would be easy to dismiss as rhetoric were it simply coming from the seafood industry. But it is based on countless independent, peer-reviewed studies showing that when we don’t eat enough seafood we see cognitive impediments in children and more preventable cardiovascular deaths in adults. It’s a warning repeated by the World Health Organization, the United Nations, and the National Institutes of Health, among others.
But for too long, these cautions have been drowned out by well-funded activist groups whose ideological agenda and whose bottom line depend on scaring the daylights out of Americans.
Their boogeyman of choice is mercury. And they have been beating that drum for decades, warning that amidst the witches’ brew of pollutants spewed by coal-fired power plants, mercury was making its way into the fish on our plates. All manner of dreadful, irreversible health consequences were alleged to follow, for ourselves and our children. We’ve all heard the scare stories and dire warnings for pregnant women and the lectures from wannabe celebrity gurus. It’s scary stuff, and, as the activists themselves readily admit, an effective fundraising message.
People start to care much more, and understand the threat to the ocean, when you tell them that their tuna fish is contaminated, one activist told Fortune magazine about the focus on mercury. It’s a dramatic, eye-opening moment for people.
There’s only one problem: essentially none of this narrative is true.
It is true that there are trace amounts of organic mercury, called methyl mercury, in fish. But it’s also true that no published, peer-reviewed scientific study can locate a single case of mercury toxicity from the normal consumption of commercial seafood in the United States. Nor is there any evidence that countries like Japan, where the average consumer eats as much as ten times more seafood as Americans, have suffered from an epidemic of mercury poisoning.
Unfortunately, thanks in large part to the agenda-driven scaremongering of eco-activists, Americans now have a very different problem: We’re eating dangerously little seafood. Far too little to enjoy health benefits much less experience any potential harm.
We know from peer-reviewed study after peer-reviewed study that seafood-rich diets can prevent early death from cardiovascular diseases in adults and raise IQs in children. Researchers at Harvard even went so far as to conclude in a study on mercury in fish that seafood is likely the single most important food one can consume for good health.
And yet despite efforts from august institutions to push back on the din of misinformation, the data also tells us that America is facing a lost generation of seafood eaters and that women are by far the worst off.
Federal advice issued in 2004 encouraging women to eat up to 12 ounces of seafood per week was intended to maximize the benefit and minimize the supposed risk for vulnerable groups. But this aim at subtlety had the exact opposite effect. Motivated by better-safe-than-sorry reasoning, women’s seafood intake plummeted, and perhaps worse, they stopped feeding fish to their children. Instead of up to 12 ounces, pregnant women are eating 1.89 ounces of fish per week, according to FDA data. And per a recent national survey, 91 percent of parents with children 12 years old and younger confirm that kids aren’t eating the recommended amount of two servings per week.
The good news is the government is taking steps to reverse the trend. Just this year the FDA, after years of painstaking study and input from EPA and numerous other agencies, issued new draft guidance that represents a step in the right direction. Taking on this slow-moving public-health crisis, the new advice now talks to pregnant women about eating at least 8 ounces of seafood per week, transitioning from a consumption ceiling, to a floor. The draft advice isn’t perfect, and it’s being reviewed and worked on by experts, but it represents fundamental change.
The bad news is the anxiety peddling narrative persists. Recently, Consumer Reports, once a revered home electronics guide, became the latest to join the fray when they suggested pregnant women not eat tuna at all. FDA responded directly, telling Consumer Reports that they got it wrong. Consumer Reports’s recommendation overestimates the negative effects and overlooks the strong body of scientific evidence published in the last decade, FDA said. In response, the magazine admitted the FDA advice combines benefits and risks. Our approach to risk just looks at the risk.
We won’t be able to reverse the damage done by decades of this kind of thinking until the hucksters and extremists who created the crisis are disqualified from the discussion.
That’s why this otherwise dry federal meeting on fish contaminants is so crucial. A major focus of the forum will be finding new and more effective approaches to communicating public health risks and benefits related to fish.
We could start by telling American families the truth.
The EWG Mercury Conspiracy Lives On
The professional fearmonger, anti-vaccination-conspiracy-theory-pusher, and all-around activist shop that is the Environmental Working Group (EWG) is out today with another addition to their collection of flawed reports on mercury and seafood. This new EWG’s Consumer Guide to Seafood is a rehash of the same debunked and tired tropes EWG has been trying to push on the public for years.
Like any tried-and-true conspiracy theorist, EWG continues to argue despite the growing reams of evidence on the topic as well as recommendations from the World Health Organization, the United States Department of Agriculture, the Institute of Medicine, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and recent joint draft advice from the Environmental Protection Agency and Food and Drug Administration (which itself relied on hundreds of independent, published, peer-reviewed studies) that they, and only they, are in a position to tell the truth about mercury in fish.
Take for instance EWG’s claims that the current safe dose level established by the EPA in 2001 [is] now considered outdated and too high by many scientists. EWG doesn’t attempt to answer which scientists, or how many scientists, or what their qualifications are, or offer any guess as to why this purported group has a different take on this issue. Instead, they ask readers to take it as a matter of faith that their pronouncements on mercury trump the scientific consensus reached through hundreds of rigorous, peer-reviewed studies.
EWG also fails to note that the safe dose levels established by the FDA itself includes a 10-fold safety factor, meaning that a fish would have to exceed the current level by a factor of ten to reach dose levels actually associated with adverse effects.
EWG warns that pregnant women and children should limit or avoid canned tuna. Of course this flies in the face of the FDA’s new draft advice, which confirms not only that canned tuna is a healthy choice for pregnant woman and children, but that women should eat at least 8 ounces of a variety of seafood to enjoy health benefits and avoid risks to themselves and their children.
To take agenda-driven activists like EWG seriously would itself be a serious mistake. When it comes to health and nutrition, let’s stick with the experts.
A Few Retorts for Consumer Reports
A recent Consumer Reports article on tuna goes against the vast and continuously growing body of peer-reviewed research on the positive effects of seafood consumption on health. Despite our repeated warnings about their reckless behavior, they continue to mislead their readers with their fear mongering.
So we decided that if Consumer Reports couldn’t get the facts right, we’d do it for them. So here’s a first look at volume 1, issue 1 of Consumer Remorse.
Senator McCaskill to Dr. Oz: The scientific community is almost monolithically against you
Yesterday Dr. Mehmet Oz testified before a Senate committee about the accuracy of the medical advice he gives on his show. Readers of this blog would be shocked, SHOCKED to find that by his own admission he has issued advice that would not pass scientific muster.
As part of her questioning Senator Claire McCaskill ripped into Oz, asking why he need[ed] to say this stuff because you know its not true.
In reply, Oz said that he personally believe[s] in the items I talk about on the show though he admitted that they would not pass FDA muster.
McCaskill dismissed his personal beliefs stating, the scientific community is almost monolithically against you.
Its not surprising that McCaskill and the scientific community have lined up against Oz and his personal beliefs. As we have documented many, many, many, times Oz has a penchant for playing fast and loose with the facts while ignoring key scientific literature.
Each time Oz advances his unfounded theories he risks promoting unhealthy behavior in his audience and their loved ones. And as we have noted, this can have very real effects in the health and wellbeing of people. For example, when Oz told his viewers that mercury in fish was a concern for the general population, or when Oz interviewed activist Dr. Jane Hightower about her mercury-focused practice and her pet diagnosis of fish fog, he helped encourage people to consume less fish. Meanwhile a Harvard study shows eating less fish costs up to 84,000 lives per year.
Its encouraging to see people calling Dr. Oz out for his improper advice and demanding accountability. We hope as questions continue to mount towards Oz and others like him the public will learn to place their trust in science, not personalities and their strange beliefs.
The FDA’s Mountain of Evidence vs. Ned Groth and the Mercury Policy Project
The Folly of Giving Time to the Activists
Should We Stop Eating Fish is both the title and the central question that Emily Jacobs asks in a recent article at The Daily Meal. As anyone who has bothered to spend the five seconds it takes to Google Fish Health Benefits can tell you, the answer is a resounding NO. Jacobs herself basically concurs after a long, winding article that chooses to answer at essay length what easily could have been done with a single word.
Nevertheless, along the way Jacobs manages to ignore the overwhelming scientific consensus around the subject, deciding to instead rely on several notorious activists who thrive on muddying the water around the issue and who have spent their professional lives trying to create controversy where none need exist.
The experts consulted by Jacobs include Jane Hightower and the Mercury Policy Project (MPP), both of whom fit the profile of professional environmental activists.
The book Hightower wrote on mercury reads more like a celebrity name-dropping exercise than a serious study. When Hightower does actually get to the science, she relies on outdated anecdotes masquerading as data to try to scare consumers away from fishincluding a more than 40-year-old case in which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recalled canned tuna from store shelves over mercury concerns. What Hightower doesn’t say is that in the end, less than 23% of the cans tested exceeded the now-obsolete federal mercury limit. Closer to 0% would have exceeded contemporary limit.
The MPP also has a long history of ignoring the basic facts. When they arent busy partnering up with anti-vaccine activists they spend their time rejecting nutrition guidelines from government bodies like the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, Food and Drug Administration, and United States Department of Agriculture, all of which urge greater fish consumption . MPP has also disparaged peer-reviewed scientific findings from institutions such as the Harvard School of Public Health and the Institute of Medicine proving that the benefits of eating seafood far outweigh the risks.
Treating activists like Hightower and the MPP as supposed experts is a menace to public health. The science is clear: eating fish is a vital part of a healthy diet. And allowing activists to stir up a debate they have already lost can only promote harmful health outcomes. Jacobs, and others writing on the subject, owe it to their readers to promote sound science, not the musings of activists looking to make a quick splash in the papers.
A Simple Answer For Carl Safina
Carl Safina dedicates 1,167 words to speculating on the potential harm from mercury in seafood, but he could have saved himself a lot of time by skipping to the central question, which he asks mercury fearmonger-in-chief Ned Groth halfway through the piece. “What does mercury actually do to people? Are people getting sick?
Spoiler alert: The answer is no. There has never been a recorded case of mercury poisoning in America from normal seafood consumption.
Unsurprisingly, rather than share this simple truth, Safina and Groth indulge at great length in the kind of alarmism and hand-wringing that has contributed to Americans eating dangerously low amounts of seafood. So lets deal, once again, with Groths and Safinas biggest misunderstandings, misstatements, and mistruths.
Lets start with how Safina describes Groth and fellow fear-monger Michael Bender:
I recently spoke with Ned Groth, an environmental health scientist formerly with Consumers Union, and Michael Bender, co-founder of the Mercury Policy Project (MPP).
But both Groth and Bender work for MPP and are not unaffiliated as is implied here. MPP has a clear cut, activist agenda, and is the ground zero of mercury misinformation.
Safina also writes:
There’s no sharp line between “safe” and “unsafe” levels of mercury in the body, but the average adult has a blood level of about 1 microgram per liter, and anything above 5 micrograms per liter is considered too high.
In fact, there is sharp line. The FDA has set a limit for mercury in American food, and it is built with a 1000% safety factor, meaning American consumers would have to eat ten times more seafood than the recommended upper limit to reach levels of mercury associated with harm. A relatively healthy man like Safina wouldnt even come close to the danger threshold while whittling away on his 20lbs of tuna over several months, and a doctor wouldnt blink an eye if he ate that much in half the time.
Ned says that among commonly consumed fish and shellfish, some kinds have 100 times more mercury than other kinds. The highest levels are found in larger, longer-lived predatory fish such as shark, swordfish, tuna, marlin, and grouper.
As the old saying goes, the poison is in the dose. Consumed in high enough quantities, even water can be toxic. But just because some fish contain more mercury than others doesnt mean they are less safe to eat. The government only singles out four, rarely consumed species (king mackerel, shark, tilefish, and swordfish) for pregnant women only out of an abundance of precaution. There are no restrictions for anyone else.
The more fish a person eats, the more aware they need to be of the mercury content of their fish choices. . . . including people who eat fish instead of meat andpoultry; people pursuing a “heart healthy” diet; seafood lovers who eat fish multiple times a week; and recreational and subsistence anglers who eat what they catch.
This is not just misleading, but dangerously misleading. For one thing, the vast majority of fish eaten in America is not from personal/recreational fishing and thus is subject to FDA regulation. For another, Americans already eat far less seafood than recommended, and as a result put themselves at greater risk of health problems.
Time and again, fish lists have succeeded only in creating alarm andconfusion, further deterring American families from eating fish. This is particularly worrisome for a nation where pregnant women eat less than 2 ounces, or half of a serving, of seafood per week, and where families eat less than 15 pounds of seafood a yearcompared to 70+ pounds of poultry, 100+ pounds of beef, and over 600 pounds of dairy. Americans are not eating enough seafood to derive its nutritional benefits, much less enough to get sick from mercury.
Safina may have meant well in seeking out more information on mercury in seafood, but his first mistake was to ask Ned Groth, who is on record saying that he is not interested in any potential health benefits from eating fish, only the potential harm. Groth and his cohort at MPP cannot be trusted. His second mistake was to ignore the weight of scientific evidence that clearly shows eating seafood is not only safe, but is nutritionally one of the smartest food choices you can make for your heart and health.
Michael Bender and Edward Groths Willful Ignorance
When young children hear things they dont like, theyve been known to cover their ears, shut their eyes, and yell at the top of their lungs LA-LA-LA-LA-LA! in the hope that if they cant hear or see the offending information, they wont have to deal with the reality of it. In much the same way, Michael Bender of the notorious Mercury Policy Project, and research cohort Edward Groth III seem to believe that if they keep ignoring the weight of scientific evidence challenging their irresponsible fear-mongering on mercury and fish, theyll never have to deal with reality. But no matter how long Benders and Groths temper tantrums last, their flawed studies and perspective will never change the facts.
Bender and Groths latest effort to dupe the public comes with an assist from the New York Times, who offers the duo as experts on mercury and seafood while pointing readers to cherry picked data from small, and in one instance, outdated studies, while ignoring newer and significantly larger landmark studies that dispute their theories of mercury harm.
Groth trots out a tired line about how he wants pregnant women to eat fish and then proceeds to perpetuate fear that finding the right fish is a landmine. For pregnant women, FDA suggests only four exotic and rarely eaten fish to avoid (King Mackerel, Shark, Tilefish and Swordfish). But thats not good enough for Groth who would rather make up a list of his own fish to avoid. Of course, one need only look at Groths research methods, which include publishing a report based on anecdotal evidence from a friends grandson, to see how methodical and careful he really is which helps explain why hes never been published by a peer reviewed publication. Groth, seems to misunderstand the basic principle of toxicologythat the dose makes the poison. To him, the presence of any amount of methylmercurya naturally occurring substance in fish that results from ocean-floor volcanic activityis cause for alarm, and the levels contained in canned tuna are well below the FDAs recommended limit, which itself has a built-in safety factor of 1000%.
Benders qualifications are no better, as despite his ongoing, misguided crusade against seafood, has admitted during testimony at an FDA hearing, … I don’t have a science background.”
Despite what Bender and Groth claim, seafood and fish consumption are net health positives for all Americans, including pregnant women. The only problem with Americans seafood consumption is that they arent doing enough of it. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the nutrition law of the land, recommends Americans, including pregnant women, eat at least two seafood meals a week. Researchers at Harvard determined low seafood consumption is the second-biggest dietary contributor to preventable death in the U.S. The same study found some 84,000 cardiac-related deaths could be prevented each year with a diet rich in seafood.
Seafood consumption is important to prenatal development as well. A long-term study showed that children whose moms cut back on seafood during pregnancy had significantly lower IQs. Those children missed out on key nutrients from fish like Omega-3 fatty acidswhich every major health organization says are essential for healthy brain development.
Bender and Groths religious like zealotry in pushing out these alarmist claims of harm come at a high cost to public health, serving no purpose but to scare up dollars for their own cause. While these fear-mongers might be plugging their ears and shouting at the top of their lungs in an attempt to avoid the truth, they cant change the facts: seafood is good for you. Enjoy it without fear.
Evidence Continues To Grow On Benefits of Seafood Consumption
The evidence for the health benefits of eating seafood has been steadily growing over the years. Studies have shown that higher seafood consumption improves cardiac health, boosts fetal and infant cognitive development, and is associated with higher intelligence at age 17. Yet activists continue to scaremonger over seafood consumption, insisting that trace levels of mercury found in fish pose a risk to humans.
These health concerns have largely been been dismissed by the scientific community, and the government, in part because the mercury levels cited in alarmist cases are below the threshold set by the Food and Drug Administration, which itself has a 1,000% safety factor. And new evidence continues to pour in confirming that mercury associated with normal seafood consumption is a non-issue. Earlier this month Dr. Nicholas Ralston from the University of North Dakota presented evidence that selenium rates in tuna far outweighed their mercury rates. Why is this important? Because selenium binds to mercury, neutralizing its effects.
Of course, this evidence probably wont matter to the activists who continue to fearmonger despite the mountains of evidence against them. But for the public, who are more concerned about real nutrition and scienceand not the extremists agendaRalstons research provides another reason why eating seafood like tuna can help you lead a long and healthy life.
Huffington Post Regurgitates Activist Report Unchecked
Over at the Huffington Post Green Blog, Carl Safina has a post up parroting the worst of the talking points from a recent Environmental Working Group [EWG] report designed to scare consumers away from nutritious and crucially healthy canned tuna.
Safina echoes oft-reputed claims from EWG, including that women who plan to become pregnant, women who are breastfeeding, and young children should limit their consumption of albacore tuna to no more than 6 ounces per week.
This advice is contrary to the international scientific consensus, including the conclusions of the United States Department Agriculture, the Institute of Medicine, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, working in conjunction the World Heath Organization.
Safina points to he calls recent data collected by EWG showing that 10 of the 35 most popular seafoods contained mercury levels that could pose a health risk to childbearing aged women if eaten twice weekly.
What Safina doesnt point out is that these fish recommendations were derived in part using the work of environmental activist Timothy Fitzgerald of the Environmental Defense Fund, who has previously admitted that he makes no effort to consider and balance seafood health benefits pregnant women miss out on in his work, a highly unusual methodology for a researcher claiming to give out health advice.
Perhaps recognizing that his warnings rest on a biased and one-sided argument based on nothing more than speculation, Safina backtracks somewhat by claiming that how much mercury is too much for non-childbearing women and men still remains under debate. Which, of course, doesnt stop him from immediately projecting the worst when he then claims that anyone who eats large amounts of fish or frequently consumes high-mercury fish could potentially face health risks.
While Safina uses mealy-mouthed language couched with hedges such as could and potentially, scientists who are studying the issue of seafood and health have been firm in their conviction that eating fish is unambiguously a net positive. Researchers at Harvard determined low seafood consumption is the second-biggest dietary contributor to preventable death in the U.S., and a long-term study of children whose mothers cut back on seafood during pregnancy had significantly lower IQs. With Americans eating just 15 lbs of seafood a year compared with 70+ pounds of poultry and 100+ pounds of beef, the reality is we dont eat enough to be healthy let alone get sick.
The science is clear: fish are a healthy and vital part of your diet. The sooner the media starts listening to nutrition scientists instead of environmental zealots, the sooner we can start undoing the massive public-health harm these eco-lifestyle zealots have perpetrated.