How Much Philly.com Should You Believe?

When Philly.com asked how much tuna kids should eat we took a close look at their reporting and found it… lacking. Here’s a letter to their editors and watch this space for any response.

June 24, 2013

Karl Stark

Assistant Managing Editor

Business, Health and Science coverage

Philly.com

Dear Mr. Stark,

Todays GreenSpace column by Sandy Bauers (How much tuna should kids eat?) fails the most basic standards of journalism. It contains misleading, dangerous advice based on pseudo-science propagated by activists.

Specifically:

Ms. Bauer presented a primary source in her column, Adam Finkel, as an unbiased observer. As Ms. Bauer portrayed it, Mr. Finkel is a father and scholar who became concerned about how much tuna children are eating based on two recent reports.

At least one of these reports was generated by the Mercury Policy Project (MPP), a well-known activist organization. Yet Ms. Bauer failed to disclose Mr. Finkels connection to the Mercury Policy Project that dates back at least three years.

Mr. Finkel joined other activists in signing two letters lobbying the federal government on mercury in seafood. I found the letters one signed in 2010 and the other in 2013 — on the Mercury Police Project website using a quick Google search.

Why was this important, and easily found, connection not disclosed to readers?

Ms. Bauer also did not provide any background on the Mercury Policy Project, a group she describes innocuously as a Vermont nonprofit. In fact, MPP is an agenda-driven activist group with a notorious history of promoting hysteria that is utterly at odds with the whole of the medical and science establishment. I provided Ms. Bauer with information about the Mercury Policy Project, but she apparently ignored it.

Ms. Bauer also gave considerable import to a report written for MPP by Edward Groth, an activist turned consultant. Heres what I told Ms. Bauer in an email prior to her columns publication:

Reports like the one from MPP do far more harm than good for Americas children. Their study was not peer reviewed, not published and was based on what can only be described as a new low in quasi science. The lead author relied on what he heard was served at the school of a friends grandson in New Jersey. MPP did zero research into the actual frequency of tuna being served in school lunches. None. How can you do an exposure study if you dont research how often a subject is exposed?

I also provided a link to an article detailing the problems with the study.

None of this was mentioned in Ms. Bauers column.

As I mentioned, I sent Ms. Bauer a lengthy email with a statement and spoke to her on the phone. Heres a portion of what she declined to use:

The idea that children should eat fewer tuna sandwiches is embarrassingly out of step with what actual nutrition experts say (World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)Harvard School of Public Health, the Institute of Medicine (IOM).)

Hyperbole rather than honest perspective often colors these types of narratives. Lets put it in perspectivepeople in Japan eat 10 times as much seafood, including tuna, as Americans. Yet there is no epidemic of mercury poisoning there. In fact on many leaves the population, including school children, is measurably healthier than ours.

Please feel free to use anything you find in these resource links as on the record comments:

http://www.aboutseafood.com/press/media-blog/mercury-policy-project-continues-its-track-record-doing-more-harm-good

http://www.aboutseafood.com/press/media-blog/mercury-policy-project-reveals-new-low-quasi-science

http://www.aboutseafood.com/content/mercury-policy-project

Instead Ms. Bauer relied on activist misinformation. The result was an article thats heavy on dangerous hyperbole and light on important facts.

Ms. Bauer wrote: Mercury is emitted by coal-fired power plants and other industries. It gets into waterways, then into fish, accumulating as it moves up the food chain to top predators such as tuna.

In fact, mercury in the ocean, where commercial seafood comes from, is by and large naturally occurring. Trace amounts of mercury have always been in every fish since the beginning of time because it is naturally occurring in our oceans, mainly from underwater volcanoes and mineral deposits. In fact, methylmercury levels in commercial seafood are nearly identical to levels recorded over the last 100 years.

Ms. Bauer wrote: Mercury can harm memory, intelligence, and hand-eye coordination, so federal guidelines advise limited consumption for young children and women who are or may become pregnant.

Yet Ms. Bauer failed to mention that there are no cases of mercury poisoning from the normal consumption of commercial seafood in any peer-reviewed medical journal in this country.

Heres something else Ms. Bauer ignored: Research shows that children of women who ate the most Omega-3-rich fish while pregnant score the highest on intelligence and motor-skills tests. A study from the National Institutes of Health found children whose mothers eat no fish during pregnancy are nearly a third more likely to have abnormally low IQs. Yet another study found a link between prenatal mercury exposure and improved intelligence at age 17 — likely because traces of mercury in a pregnant womans blood showed she was eating a diet rich in fish.

Ms. Bauer wrote: Finkel considers tuna a needless risk and says the smaller the child, the less tuna he or she should eat. Groth’s report recommends that children weighing less than 55 pounds eat tuna no more than once a month.

Even in schools where tuna is served sparingly, the problem is the unusual kid who loves it and eats it at every opportunity, Groth and Finkel say.

In fact, no U.S. government study has ever found unsafe levels of mercury in children who eat canned tuna.

According to testing conducted by FDA, canned light tuna has an average of 0.12 parts per million (ppm) of methylmercury per can. Canned albacore tuna has an average of 0.35 ppm. To put these amounts into perspective, FDA has set a limit of 1.00 ppm for mercury in fish and that limit has a tenfold safety factor. That means a person would have to eat 10 times more fish than the current safety threshold every day for the rest of his life to reach a level associated with any known risk.

Ms. Bauer had a chance to educate her readers by focusing on the benefits of seafood how its rich in nutrients including protein, vitamin D and Omega 3 fatty acids that are essential to healthy development in children. Instead, she scared parents away from it. (Just imagine parents reaction reading the columns subhead: Studies underscore health risks for children consuming the mercury-tainted fish at school.) And that will only hurt children the very people Ms. Bauer is apparently trying to help.

As noted by a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “avoidance of modest fish consumption due to confusion regarding risks and benefits could result in thousands of excess coronary heart disease deaths annually and suboptimal neurodevelopment in children.”

Please explain how this column was published with so many glaring problems and please explain how you plan to set the record straight, as well as what steps you will take to ensure similar misinformation is not published again. Your readers deserve better.

I look forward to your response.

Sincerely,

Gavin Gibbons

National Fisheries Institute

cc David Sullivan

Assistant Managing Editor