Industry still struggling to overcome fear of mercury contamination

Published on
June 7, 2018

This is the second in a two-part series investigating the challenge of encouraging the public to eat more seafood against the backdrop of consumer fears over mercury contamination. Part one of the series appeared on Wednesday, 6 June.

Official recommendations from health authorities in the United States and the European Union agree that most people would benefit from eating more seafood. But their warnings to avoid fish that have higher mercury concentrations, such as swordfish and bluefin tuna, are having the unintended consequence of scaring consumers away from the fish counter altogether.

Due to studies that indicated there may be some adverse consequences to pregnant women and very young children from high-risk species, the U.S. and E.U. have felt compelled to issue warnings about potential health consequences of mercury contamination. But the qualified warnings to that segment of the overall population of consumers are drowning out other messaging intended to communicate the benefits of seafood to consumers.

The National Fisheries Institute, the trade organization representing the U.S. seafood industry, has been fighting this problem for years, according to Vice President of Communications Gavin Gibbons. He told SeafoodSource that the possibility of consuming dangerous levels of mercury from fish is a non-issue.

“There is very little substantive concern about the actual levels of mercury in fish. There’s a limit as to how much is allowed to be in fish that is sold commercially and it is not really in dispute. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration limit for mercury in fish is 1.0 parts per million [ppm]. So, for instance, light tuna contains 0.1 ppm of mercury and albacore contains 0.3 ppm. If that limit were a speed limit, light tuna would be traveling 5.5 miles per hour [mph] in a 55 mph zone and albacore would be traveling 16.5 mph,” Gibbons said. “However, there’s an even more exact perspective than that. While the FDA limit for mercury in seafood is 1.0 ppm, you will notice that FDA scientists find adverse effects from mercury have only been seen above 10.0 ppm. So the FDA limit includes a 10-fold safety factor built in, meaning a fish would have to exceed 10.0 ppm to approach levels of concern. Therefore, light tuna would be traveling 0.55 miles per hour and albacore would be traveling 1.65 miles per hour, in a 55 mph zone.”

Both light tuna and albacore tuna are “demonstrably safe and healthy,” Gibbons said.

Even pregnant women shouldn’t have any fear about ingesting too much mercury in the seafood they eat, Gibbons said.

“The FDA’s own figures find that pregnant women in this country only eat 1.89 ounces of seafood per week,” he said. “Warnings are a solution in search of a problem, when the real problem is that pregnant women do not eat enough seafood to garner the benefits ... The issue is not about limits, it’s about FDA following its own science and maybe putting as much energy into encouraging pregnant women to consume more seafood as it does into hand-wringing over mercury.”

Gibbons called for responsible public health practitioners who work on policy and communications to reframe the issue.

“Jumping up and down and breathlessly panting about the need to warn pregnant women away from seafood is beyond embarrassingly misguided,” he said. “It exposes a real ignorance about what is at stake.”

Jay Shimshack, an asssociate professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia and an expert in environmental and health policy, agreed that poor communication has had unintended, adverse consequences for the public health, as seen by the results of several studies he conducted.

He told SeafoodSource that he conducted several studies that used real-world consumption data, such as from supermarket scanners, to analyze how thousands of households responded to commercial advisories in the early 2000s.

“We found that at-risk households did reduce mercury intake from fish. However, our evidence suggests they did so by simply avoiding consumption of seafood. At-risk consumers did not substitute higher mercury seafood with lower mercury seafood, nor did they even differently avoid higher mercury seafood. They simply reduced consumption of all common species. Given that women of child-bearing age and pregnant women typically eat much less than guidelines recommend, these changes may have been harmful for public health.”

He added, “Most notably, less educated, lower income, and minority groups were especially unlikely to respond in ways that reduced mercury risks while preserving benefits of healthy fish consumption.

Shimshack agrees that the approach of policymakers when communicating on this issue needs to change.

“If we continue to use fish consumption guidance as our primary policy for mercury in seafood, we need to start aggressively testing and evaluating how pregnant women and at-risk households actually respond to specific messaging and guidance in the real world,” he said.

The scientific literature is clear that seafood consumption provides many health benefits, he said. However, “certain types of fish (large predatory fish) should be avoided by women who are or may become pregnant, nursing women, and by young children. Consensus seems farther away on other aspects of the related health sciences literature.”

But the science doesn’t matter if people aren’t using it to make sound, logical decisions about their dietary choices, Shimshack said.

“We must also understand if, how, and why people respond to scientific guidance in a complicated real world,” he said. “This literature is largely irrelevant if the results are not translated into actionable and effective public policy. How government guidelines translate into actual human behavior is at least as important as what the guidelines say and why. And these issues continue to receive very little attention.”

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Reporting from the Caribbean

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