Consumer protection advocates and members of the medical community pressed the U.S. Food and Drug Administration today to provide consumers with clearer, more accurate, and more accessible guidance on the mercury content of the seafood they consume.
Earthjustice filed a petition for rulemaking on behalf of Dr. Jane Hightower, the Mercury Policy Project, and the Center for Science in the Public Interest asking that the FDA post signs near the seafood counter in markets and on the labels of packaged seafood to better inform consumers of the health risks from too much mercury. Because mercury is a powerful neurotoxin and children’s developing nervous systems are most susceptible to it, information about mercury is particularly important for women of child-bearing age and children. Yet many consumers remain unaware of the risks or confused by their options due to inadequate FDA guidance.
Dr. Jane Hightower, who published a landmark study that brought the issue of mercury in seafood to national attention, and author of Diagnosis: Mercury—Money, Politics & Poison, commented: “Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are receiving public attention due to their nutritional benefits as well as anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. These claims have prompted many consumers to increase fish consumption. Mercury, a known contaminant that is present in some of our seafood at significant levels, can pose harm to consumers and therefore, information regarding the side effects of mercury should be equally available.”
“As a public health agency, the FDA has the responsibility to advise consumers about the mercury content of seafood in the clearest and most accessible way possible so that people can make the healthiest choices about the seafood that they eat,” said Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff. “Point of sale advisories and labeling of packaged seafood in grocery stores listing alerting people to elevated mercury content and consumption limits for fish and shellfish would allow people to compare them and make quick, informed decisions about what to put on their family’s table.”
Much of the mercury deposited in the oceans comes from coal-burning power plants, where it is incorporated into the tissue of marine animals as methylmercury. The methylmercury then enters the human food supply through consumption of seafood, where it can harm the developing nervous system and cause serious health effects. The FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint advisory in 2004 directed at women and young children entitled, “What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish,” which lacks crucial information necessary for making healthy decisions about eating seafood. And because it is found on the internet, those without access, or who do not know to look for advice online, may be completely unaware of specific federal recommendations about eating seafood.
“While the 2004 FDA online advisory improved mercury warnings advising pregnant women to limit consumption of canned tuna, there has been little follow up,” said Michael Bender, Director of the Mercury Policy Project. “This petition presses FDA to get the message across by informing pregnant women of the risks before they buy fish.”
In 2004, the American Medical Association publicly recommended that the FDA consider requiring that seafood advisory consumption limits be posted where seafood is sold. Additionally, the state of Washington has started a “Healthy Fish Choices” pilot project that provides grocery stores with point of sale information about the mercury content of seafood. But the FDA has failed to implement seafood mercury level and consumption limit labeling or point of sale regulations that would establish requirements nationwide.
Sarah Klein, Staff Attorney for the Food Safety Program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, noted: “Seafood can be an important part of a healthy diet, but consumers need to know more about which types of seafood are best for them. Providing information about mercury on the package and at the fish counter is the best way to communicate both the benefits and the risks.” In 2005, CSPI wrote a letter to the agency asking them to urge supermarkets to post information about mercury in seafood at the fish counter. In 2000, the group petitioned FDA to set a regulatory limit for mercury in seafood to accurately reflect the risk to women and children. These efforts and the petition filed today represent ongoing efforts to require the FDA to provide better information to the public about the mercury content of seafood.