Dear Journalist,

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:

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:

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Straight Fact

 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.


We encourage any and all responsible feedback on this issue, but we also want to let reporters know that we will be vigilant about confronting distortions and errors - and will do so publicly.

Mary Anne Hansan
Vice President
National Fisheries Institute