Mercury Awareness Rising

On Oct. 1, Island Press will publish a 288-page book titled "Diagnosis: Mercury" by San Francisco physician and activist Dr. Jane Hightower. According to the publisher's Web site, the book ties mercury poisoning to seafood consumption, accusing "political calculations, dubious studies and industry lobbyists" of endangering public health. Hightower is no stranger to the cause - her 2003 report in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives claimed 89 percent of the 123 patients she tested registered blood-mercury levels exceeding the Environmental Protection Agency's reference dose.

Last week, The California Legislature approved a measure urging the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to increase public awareness of the health risks associated with consuming seafood relatively high in mercury. Joint Resolution 57 was co-sponsored by Assemblymen Ira Ruskin (D-Los Altos) and Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael), a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council prior to his 2006 election.

Let's be realistic: "Diagnosis: Mercury" may not be as powerful as Rachel Carson's 1962 book "Silent Spring," which is credited with launching the modern environmental movement. And Joint Resolution 57 is, well, a resolution - it holds minimal weight. The FDA can ignore the resolution if it so chooses, and it probably will.

FDA Assistant Commissioner David Acheson says mercury isn't an agency priority, according to Mal Wittenberg, who met with Acheson months ago. Wittenberg is CEO of Micro Analytical Systems (MASI), which in 2005 developed technology measuring the level of mercury present in fish in a timely and cost-effective manner and introduced its Safe Harbor retail label. MASI's customers include Bristol Farms and Haggen Food and Pharmacy on the West Coast.

Wittenberg also met with Ruskin and the staff of Huffman's office (Huffman represents San Rafael, where MASI is based), which led to Joint Resolution 57. California is far likelier than the FDA to push the mercury issue, which "isn't going away," says Wittenberg.

Right now, there's a push to better educate consumers about the perceived health risks associated with eating seafood relatively high in mercury. If retailers and restaurateurs don't step up and do it themselves, there are a number of entrepreneurs, state legislators and activists such as Hightower who will do it for them, and they won't like what they have to say.

Best regards,
Steven Hedlund
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business


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