Over the last several years, the public has been hearing false messages about mercury levels in fish communicated through the mass media. These messages largely come from environmental groups pressing for stronger mercury emission standards and falsely claim women of childbearing age may have unsafe levels of mercury in their blood, putting their unborn babies and young children are at risk for neurological impairment. At the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), we agree discussions about eating fish should be central to our national discourse on nutrition. However, the way this subject is being covered raises troubling issues about the objectivity, accuracy, balance and sourcing of this specialized nutrition issue.
What's worse, it's not just journalism standards that have suffered - there is disturbing evidence that readers and viewers are acting on the distorted information in ways that are harmful to their health. Here are just a few examples of how the news media has played into the hands of agenda-driven environmental activists and presented distorted reporting as fact:
In November 2007, USA Today's Larry Wheeler wrote: "As many as 600,000 babies may be born in the USA each year with irreversible brain damage because pregnant mothers ate mercury-contaminated fish, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says." What Wheeler failed to mention was that EPA never made that claim, but that it was simply an extrapolation made by an agency employee whose questionable methodology and conclusions have been challenged by other scientists. A correction soon followed. Further, Wheeler made the above assertion despite the fact that science shows mothers who eat the most fish have babies with the highest cognitive outcomes.
In January 2008, New York Times reporter Marian Burros conducted her own analysis of mercury in sushi that included remarkably similar methodology and conclusions to a report from environmental activist group Oceana that was released on the very same day her story was printed. Burros' story contained multiple errors, distortions and omissions; most critically, misinterpretations of the EPA "reference dose" and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) "action level" for mercury, ignoring the fact that both standards contain a ten-fold cushion of safety. The paper's public editor was forced to admit that the story "required careful judgment ... and missed." He added: "I thought the package was less balanced than it should have been, given the state of existing research. James Gorman, an editor in the science department who reviewed the article before publication, said he had raised several specific questions but that in retrospect, ‘I should have raised more questions about the general presentation.'"
In many cases, reporters will uncritically pass along charges from activists, yet at the same time apply great skepticism to experts, including independent scientists, who take a pro-seafood stance. In July 2008, the Winston-Salem Journal reported on a study that questioned the health benefits of tilapia. Reporter Richard Craver claimed NFI officials took issue with the research "because of its potential for affecting sales." However, no official with or employee of NFI ever made such a statement and the assertion itself is false. Craver went on to write that NFI issued a public letter criticizing the tilapia related research, when in fact the letter was from 16 independent, international scientists. In response, the paper was forced to issue a correction on both points.
The wild stocks of Alaska pollock are generally acknowledged to be some of the best managed in the world. Despite this, in October 2008, Reuters reporter Jasmin Melvin passed along a report from Greenpeace that Alaska pollock was on the verge of collapse. The Greenpeace report was based on its own incomplete analysis of the National Marine Fisheries Service's stock survey. What Greenpeace didn't say in its press release was that due to lower water temperatures, much of the Pollock had been driven to a lower ocean depth. The complete analysis found the bulk of the stock closer to the bottom of the ocean, a phenomenon that has been common in recent years. When confronted with the error by NFI, Reuters initially refused to acknowledge the additional information, but eventually relented, moving an updated story on its wires.
In January 2009, an Associated Press article on tuna and mercury included the erroneous claim that the EPA and FDA advise women who are pregnant or may become pregnant, nursing mothers and young children to avoid eating tuna because of its "high levels of mercury that can cause brain damage in babies," - a demonstrable falsehood. In the very first paragraph of the federal seafood consumption advice it is clearly stated, "women and young children in particular should include fish or shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits." The advice then urges this sensitive subpopulation to avoid just four fish during pregnancy: shark, tilefish, swordfish, and king mackerel. Tuna is not included on the list of 4 species to avoid. The advice clearly states that it is safe and healthful for women and children to eat 12 ounces of light tuna per week or 6 ounces of white albacore per week. When confronted with the error, the AP was forced to issue a correction.
At times, it can be hard to tell the difference between a press release from an environmental activist and what passes as mainstream reporting. One such example is the work of Michael Hawthorne, a reporter at the Chicago Tribune who has regularly conflated industrial emissions of mercury with traces of mercury in commercial seafood. Most recently, Hawthorne's reporting has mischaracterized the latest science used by FDA to illustrate the overwhelming benefits of eating more seafood for optimal brain and heart health as a last-minute attempt by the Bush Administration to foil the efforts of EPA and environmental activists, rather than what it was - the culmination of years of scientific study and research.
Another example of a reporter repeating activist charges about tuna and mercury came in February 2009, when an AP report concerning international efforts to stem mercury emissions from industrial sources contained claims that tuna is regularly contaminated with industrial mercury. Peer-reviewed science shows the vast majority of the mercury that accumulates in commercial seafood is produced by underwater volcanic activity - a critical piece of science that was recently the centerpiece of a court case rejecting an appeal by the State of California that would have required tuna to carry warning labels under the state's Prop. 65 statute. The California courts ruled against the State Attorney General for the second time on the grounds that traces of "methylmercury in tuna is naturally occurring." In a subsequent communication with NFI, AP refused to issue a correction, even as they agreed that activists may be "targeting" canned tuna as part of their larger efforts.
Most recently, America's top fashion magazine, Vogue, showed why it shouldn't stray too far from its primary area of expertise when it ran a feature on fish consumption and mercury. Entitled, "Mercury Rising," the story was written by sometime Hollywood screenwriter Bronwyn Garrity, who admits a "Google-fueled freakout" spurred fears that generated the story rather than discussions with her own doctor or other health experts. Besides relying almost exclusively on activist sources like Oceana and the Environmental Defense Fund, Garrity, while interviewing an official of the EPA, neglected to consult an official of the FDA, the government agency responsible for dispensing nutritional advice to Americans. She also failed to mention the new, landmark FDA draft report on fish consumption that reported cognitive benefits for 99.9% of babies and young children, as well as its role in preventing 50,000 deaths a year from heart disease and stroke. Also ignored: years of positive studies and reports on the benefits of increased fish consumption by The Lancet, the Journal of the American Medical Association and the Institute of Medicine.
Readers and viewers deserve the truth. When activists are cherry picking science or not using science at all to meet their rhetorical needs, they should be exposed, not showcased.
Contrary to some reports in the activist press, NFI wants an open dialogue with journalists. We believe such a dialogue will support the balanced and objective reporting that journalists seek generally and is particularly important when informing the public about their diet and health. Despite these past errors, allow us to offer some specifics and a few suggestions when approaching coverage about the seafood industry:
Reporters should seek out opposing views when an issue is in dispute. Failing to contact independent scientists and/or subject experts from the seafood community to respond to unproven claims of the activist community should be seen as what it is, a basic violation of American journalism standards;
Despite being advised on multiple occasions, reporters continue to make the same mistakes about fish consumption and mercury. Below, find a table that contains the most common mistakes journalists make when reporting about fish consumption and mercury:
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Representing the EPA's "reference dose" as a per piece of fish limit or a per meal maximum. And characterizing the FDA's "action level" as a number above which harm to consumers will occur.
The "reference dose" refers to mercury consumption determined to have no negative effects over the course of a lifetime. Exceeding these safety measures does not indicate harm; both safety measures offer protection at levels 10 times or 1000% higher than the federal limits.
Conflating industrial emissions of mercury with mercury that naturally occurs in the ocean.
The vast majority of mercury found in the ocean and ocean fish are the result of underwater volcanic activity and thermal vent releases.
Misrepresenting FDA guidance on seafood consumption as being applied to the general population.
The current advice is exclusively for pregnant or nursing women, women who want to become pregnant and young children only. Pregnant women are eating less than 2 ounces of seafood weekly versus the 12 ounces recommended for optimum fetal brain and eye development.
Suggesting that the type and amount of mercury found in commercial seafood introduces a neurotoxin that is casing harm.
The amount of mercury equated with overt brain damage has only been seen in industrial accidents and poisonings and not in normal fish consumption. The levels present in those instances are on a scale dramatically different than the levels seen in commercial seafood. Research shows missing out on the omega-3 and other nutrients in fish is a bigger risk to brain development than trace amounts of mercury.
Citing tuna as a fish to avoid during pregnancy
The FDA guidance recommends pregnant women avoid only four species during pregnancy: shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel
Sourcing the EPA in stories about eating seafood almost exclusive of comment from the FDA.
FDA has the statutory responsibility for commercial fish and the expertise to give nutritional advice
Consumers need to choose their fish carefully and avoid high mercury fish.
Pregnant and nursing women, women who want to become pregnant, and young children are the only group guidance exists. For them, there are only four species they are asked to avoid. No restrictions exist for anyone else. The ten most commonly eaten fish in the U.S. represent 90% of the fish Americans eat and all are naturally low in mercury.
Stores should post mercury warning signs.
Studies suggest signs have a negative impact on pregnant women and consumers broadly because consumers may react by reducing or eliminating fish from their diet. FDA believes that seafood advice should be discussed with the targeted population for whom it is intended via physicians.
Reporters need to know that the independent scientific community has reached a consensus on the clear and significant net benefits of eating fish for prevention of stroke, sudden cardiac death (heart attack) and brain development during and after pregnancy. For years there has been tremendous independent data that refutes the basic claims made by environmental activists who attempt to hijack a public health issue for use in environmental health propaganda;
Reporters need to be aware of the effect that reporting has on readers - negatively impacting public health - in this case by encouraging readers to limit fish consumption and deny them the proven health benefits of increasing the amount of seafood in their diet.