Conflicts of Interest Taint Institute of Medicine Seafood Panel Examining Mercury Risks, Say Advocates | Oceana

Conflicts of Interest Taint Institute of Medicine Seafood Panel Examining Mercury Risks, Say Advocates

Press Release Date: October 1, 2009

Location: Washington, DC


Anna Baxter | email:
Anna Baxter

A new report expected to be released tomorrow by the Institute of Medicine (IOM) was commissioned by the National Marine Fisheries Service, reportedly to assess the risks and benefits of eating seafood. However, many consumer and conservation groups have been highly critical of the IOM process and makeup of the assembled panel that wrote the report – and the ties to the seafood industry many of these members have or have had in the past.

Oceana and the Mercury Policy Project hope the report will clearly indicate that the benefits of fish can be enjoyed and the risks of mercury contamination avoided simply through wise shopping choices, which can be facilitated by warning signs at the point of sale. However, the groups fear that instead, this report, like others before it, may be misleading due to a flawed process that favors the fishing industry.

“There was no legitimate consumer representation on the advisory panel,” said Michael Bender, Director of the Mercury Policy Project. “The deck was stacked against consumer interests right from the beginning. In similar situations in the past, the process has been twisted to provide the outcome the seafood industry wants so they can sell more seafood. While we sincerely hope that this has not happened, we are not encouraged by the makeup of this panel.”

For example, when Jennifer Hillard of the Consumer Alliance of Canada was selected to serve as the only consumer representative on the panel, Bender and others expressed concern to IOM in both a letter and a face-to-face meeting. While many other scientifically-trained, U.S. based consumer representatives offered to serve on this 13-member U.S. Government panel, a Canadian with no mercury experience – but with close ties to the food industry – was the only consumer representative chosen. Ms. Hillard’s resume includes work on projects funded by Monsanto and the Canadian Drug Manufacturers Association, and she appears to lack experience in mercury toxicology, a subject to be addressed by the panel.

Organizations including the Mercury Policy Project, Oceana, Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Natural Resources Defense Council and others have pointed out that the panel appears to be biased toward nutritional benefits of fish, as evidenced by its makeup. The 13-member panel includes several members of the Institute of Food Technologists, a group whose board is heavily dominated by industry representatives. Only one member is recognized as a practitioner in the field of mercury toxicity.

That member, Dr. David Bellinger of Harvard University, was an author of a report last year funded largely by the U.S. tuna industry. While the report itself clearly showed that women and children should avoid high mercury fish and consume low mercury fish, this finding was ignored in favor of a sensationalized media strategy suggesting only that avoiding fish could do more harm than good. According to CSPI, Bellinger’s conflict of interest “violated any reasonable interpretation of the National Academy of Science/ Institute of Medicine’s conflict of interest rules.”

“While there is little disagreement that eating low mercury fish is important for a healthy diet, it is irresponsible not to highlight the evidence that eating high mercury fish, including albacore tuna, can be hazardous for your children’s health,” added Jackie Savitz, Director of Oceana’s Campaign to Stop Seafood Contamination. “The FDA has made it clear that consuming high mercury fish can put women of childbearing age and young children at risk, yet that information keeps getting buried for the sake of tuna sales. People need that information and it can be communicated easily by simply posting signs at the point of sale.”

The information released to the public by this IOM committee should be interpreted with a great deal of caution. Many agree that too much conflict and not enough transparency in the IOM process may have tainted the outcome.

For more information: (See page 11 & 12)