As Lent Approaches, Tests Confirm Consumers Should Avoid High Mercury Fish and Sushi
Press Release Date: October 1, 2009
Location: Washington, DC
As many Catholics prepare for the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday (February 6), they start planning special meals. One of the traditions of the season is avoiding meat every Friday during Lent. Practicing Catholics worldwide often choose fish as an alternative source of protein.
But recent independent laboratory testing of 94 samples of fish and sushi bought in 26 U.S. cities revealed that the mercury content of fresh tuna and swordfish approaches or exceeds levels that may pose risks to human health, particularly for children and women thinking of having kids.
Oceana, an international ocean conservation group based in Washington, D.C., describes the results of these tests of popular fish in a new report entitled Hold the Mercury: How to Avoid Mercury When Buying Fish. The fish tested were purchased at grocery stores and sushi restaurants, and included tuna (both steaks and sushi), swordfish, tilapia and sushi mackerel. The new report also evaluates seafood counter personnel knowledge about the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) mercury advisory.
Some of the test results were surprising and suggest that the FDA and seafood retailers could do more to inform consumers. Among the newsworthy results:
- The average mercury concentration for tuna steaks bought in grocery stores was 0.68 parts per million (ppm), which is nearly double the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s estimate of 0.38 parts per million for fresh or frozen tuna.
- Mercury content in sushi tuna was even higher, with an average value of 0.86 ppm. Fully one-third of sushi tuna samples contained mercury exceeding the FDA “action level.
- When grocery store seafood counter attendants were asked about the FDA’s advice about mercury for women thinking of having children, 87 percent gave either incorrect or incomplete information or simply said they did not know.
- As an alternative to high mercury swordfish and fresh tuna, sushi mackerel and tilapia tested low in mercury.
In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food and Drug Administration formally advised women of childbearing age and young children that they could eat up to 12 ounces of low mercury seafood per week, but to avoid swordfish, tilefish, king mackerel and shark. The agencies also advised that those women and children limit consumption of canned albacore tuna and tuna steaks to six ounces per week or less. Yet the tuna warning is often overlooked or ignored, even though tuna is the most consumed fish and thus the primary source of mercury exposure.
Oceana senior campaign director, Jacqueline Savitz, who led this project, said “We were shocked that mercury levels in tuna were as high as those in many of the fish on FDA’s ‘do not eat’ list. If seafood is on the Lent menu, wild salmon or tilapia might be a safer choice so women and kids can get the nutritional benefits of fish without the risks. Unfortunately, most shoppers will not get that message until grocery chains like Costco, Giant Eagle and others get with the program and start posting signs for their customers.”
To help consumers make informed seafood choices, Oceana launched its Campaign to Stop Seafood Contamination in 2005, and asked all the major grocery chains nationwide to post the EPA and FDA mercury advice at the point of sale. Since then, five major companies, including roughly 3,000 grocery stores, representing about 14 percent of the nation’s grocery market, have voluntarily agreed to post this information.
Companies that are actively helping consumers protect their health include Whole Foods, Wild Oats, Safeway, Trader Joe’s and some Albertsons stores. Oceana is urging the other national grocery chains, including Costco, Giant Food, Publix, A&P and Giant Eagle, to join them.
Oceana recommends that:
- All grocery stores that sell fish and sushi should post the FDA advice on signs at the point of sale.
- The FDA should require warning signs to be posted where fish covered by U.S. government advisories are sold, including at grocery store seafood counters.
- The FDA should consider including fresh tuna (including steaks and sushi) on its “Do Not Eat” list.
- The FDA should increase the frequency of its testing of commonly consumed fish, especially fresh tuna of all species commonly consumed.
Michael Bender, executive director of the Mercury Policy Project, said “The FDA needs to do a much better job of informing Americans about the risk of mercury exposure from fish consumption. These latest tests confirm that the consumer is playing Russian roulette when they are kept in the dark about the mercury levels in tuna and swordfish.”
Oceana works to protect and restore the world’s oceans. It is the largest international ocean conservation organization in the U.S., employing scientists, attorneys and grassroots campaigners to achieve tangible goals. For more information, visit www.oceana.org/mercury.
The Mercury Policy Project (MPP) works to promote policies to eliminate mercury uses, reduce the export and trafficking of mercury, and significantly reduce mercury exposures at the local, national and international levels. For more information, visit http://www.mercurypolicy.org.