Q&A: Charles Santerre, Purdue University
If you're engaged in the mercury-in-fish debate in the United States, you likely know Charles Santerre, Ph.D., a professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. As a food toxicologist and educator, Santerre has dedicated much of his career to getting the word out about seafood's healthful attributes, while warning at-risk populations, particularly pregnant women, about the risks associated with the neurotoxin methylmercury, which is found in long-living, predatory fish.
Less than two weeks ago, Purdue's Foods and Nutrition program re-launched its Web site encouraging pregnant and nursing women to eat fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids and to avoid consuming fish high in mercury. The site, www.fish4Health.net, also features a seafood-buying wallet card that can be downloaded and is also available as an iPhone application.
On Friday, I talked to Santerre about not only the new Web site but also about the federal government's current consumer mercury advisory and the new U.S. Geological Survey study on mercury contamination in freshwater fish.
Hedlund: How much work went into redesigning the Web site and launching an iPhone application?
Santerre: The iPhone application took only two weeks [to build]. But we pretty much spent the whole summer bringing the site up to speed.
What motivated you to do this?
When I started here in Indiana, we were publishing a 60-page booklet for recreationally caught fish and realized that anglers were not happy that the standards used for recreational fish as set by the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] were different than the standards for commercial fish as established by the FDA [Food and Drug Administration]. So we decided years ago that we needed to have a single standard for both recreational and commercial fish. We also realized we were putting out only a handful of copies of this 60-page booklet, and nobody saw it. So it evolved into a one-page advisory for recreational fish and one-page advisory for commercial fish.
And then we took a page from Monterey Bay Aquarium's wallet card and said, "Maybe this in an effective way to get the word out." Whereas [the aquarium's] advice is [based] on sustainability and the environment, ours is 100 percent health based. We include recommendations about the fact that [pregnant] women should be eating fish and about how much fish they should be eating. So the wallet card brings together a lot of information that I haven't seen on any other wallet card.
How challenging is it for pregnant women to weed out the misinformation about mercury in fish?
There's a lot of disagreement among federal agencies. FDA and EPA disagree on what's a safe standard. There are different camps. Some subscribe to the Seychelles Islands study and selenium's role, and others think the Faeroe Islands [study] is the best to go by. Then you have the physicians and dieticians who are making recommendations to their patients, and they don't know what sources of information to believe. So, yes, it's a real challenge.
Some pregnant women become overwhelmed and avoid eating seafood altogether. What are you doing to prevent this from happening?
You can't avoid the discussion about mercury. We have heard physicians tell [pregnant women], "Don't eat fish." And that's a poor way to go. We're still trying to measure the risk [of avoiding seafood while pregnant], but we know the risk exists. It's a two-pronged message: We really want women to eat fish, but we'd like them to select fish higher in omega-3s and lower in mercury. It's difficult to share a message like that.
Where does the current FDA-EPA consumer mercury advisory fall short?
The joint advisory is more of a warning. I don't read it as an advisory promoting seafood consumption. Our wallet card does a lot better job of that. We're telling women who are pregnant or nursing to eat 8 to 12 ounces of seafood every week. We're telling them that it's good for their babies' brain and eyes. The problem with the joint advisory is it's a warning, so of course it's going to scare women away from eating fish.
Were you surprised by the results of the recent USGS study?
I was surprised by the media coverage. This was something I could have told you 30 years ago. [Every fish the USGS tested contained traces of mercury.] Every person in the world has mercury in their body, so there's nothing earth shattering about this study. The question is, "Can a person be healthy and have mercury in their body?" Absolutely. It's the amount of mercury that's important. At a low dose, mercury is innocuous. It doesn't help us, but it doesn't hurt us. As the dose increases, the risk increases.
What are you doing to get the word out about the new Web site, wallet card and iPhone application?
It's been a real challenge to get the word out. Our Web site has had only about 50,000 hits over the last 10 years. But we've had some success. Right now we have a maternity ward in Boston that's interested in distributing 70,000 wallet cards to their patients. We're really starting to get the information out to hospitals. Aquarium of the Pacific is distributing the cards, and they have 2 million patrons [visit annually]. But it's hard because we don't have a budget for printing the wallet cards, so we're always looking for donations.
We went to [King's Seafood Co.] in Southern California and tested it with customers there. Almost 100 percent of the women we surveyed said they like the wallet card and that it would help them make good decisions to get omega-3s in their diets and avoid mercury.
Eventually we'd like to connect with WIC [Women, Infants and Children] programs. It's challenging to get into WIC programs. But the reason we're so excited about WIC is 50 percent of all births in the United States are affiliated with WIC programs. Our goal over the next few years is to keep evolving our contacts.
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