Can It, California


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
February 19, 2009

In many respects, California is a progressive state that enforces environmental and food-safety laws that are stricter than federal regulations. Its efforts to protect its citizens are commendable, but one of its most controversial laws, Proposition 65, can cause more harm than it prevents.

Tuna canners have been needlessly tangled in the Prop 65 net for years. It's time to cut bait, California - your Attorney General, Jerry Brown, is fighting a losing battle to require tuna canners to label their product as potentially harmful due to the presence of trace amounts of methylmercury.

Studies show the naturally occurring neurotoxin can impede fetal development and cause health problems for pregnant women and children. But what constantly gets lost in the scientific translation and number crunching is the fact that a reasonable amount of tuna consumption can't harm one's health (it's a cheap, but important, source of omega-3 fatty acids for many consumers). The ongoing lawsuit against Bumble Bee, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea has centered on MADL (maximum allowable dose level), says Forrest Hainline, a San Francisco attorney who represents the three companies.

The state has argued that the MADL for canned tuna should be 0.005 micrograms per day, a level Hainline says is undetectable by current scientific methods. At that level, "a warning label would be required on every fish in the world," says Hainline, who favors a 0.3-microgram MADL. No matter what infinitesimal number the state wishes to pin its case on, there is no medical evidence of mercury poisoning from seafood consumption, regardless of what actor Jeremy Piven's doctor says.

California's ceaseless drive to put toxic warnings on every can and pouch of tuna is misguided. Hainline says the state is overmatched and, during legal proceedings this week, abandoned its long-standing fight for warnings on product labels. Instead, it now wants California retailers to post the federal government's consumer advisory on the risks of mercury via seafood consumption.

In the spirit of the upcoming Super Bowl, this is a Hail Mary pass that will fall incomplete.

"It was the heart and soul of their case," Hainline says of the warnings on product labels. "The state's main argument is schizophrenic." Hainline believes the appeals court will affirm the ruling of the Superior Court, which ruled in favor of the tuna canners in May 2007.

The state's argument is weakening, evidenced by the sudden shift in strategy. Hopefully in 90 days when the ruling is due, the court will favor common sense - again - and not let the state and its overbearing laws scare people from eating seafood.

Thank you,
James Wright
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

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