Tuna Gets Snagged in Food Safety Tug-of-War
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Tuna Gets Snagged in Food Safety Tug-of-War

Consumer Reports now advises pregnant women to avoid all tuna. That’s not what the FDA and the EPA say. Who’s right?  


Consumer alert: Pregnant women should avoid eating tuna, including tuna salad sandwiches, sushi, and grilled tuna steaks, a new study from Consumer Reports says. “We’re particularly concerned about canned tuna, which is second only to shrimp as the most commonly eaten seafood in the U.S.,” Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, said in a statement. “We encourage pregnant women to avoid all tuna.”

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The report released Thursday takes strong exception to previous advisories from the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency that tuna eaten in moderation does not pose a health hazard. In June, an advisory from the FDA and EPA recommended that pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, women who plan to become pregnant, and children should eat a variety of fish – between 8 and 12 ounces a week – but they should choose fish with lower mercury contents. The agencies recommended avoiding tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.

The FDA, defending its analysis, suggested Consumer Reports was exaggerating the risks of eating tuna.

Gavin Gibbons, a spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute, an advocacy group, told The Fiscal Times that Consumer Reports is “clearly out of step with mainstream published peer-reviewed science.”

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U.S. commercial and recreational saltwater fishing produced more than $199 billion in sales in 2012, a seven percent increase over the previous year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported last April. The report also said the commercial fishing industry supported 1.3 million jobs in 2012 in fishing and across the broader economy.”

Environmentalists and health experts have long warned of the risks of eating fish tainted with mercury because of ill effects on the development of the brain and nervous system. Consumer Reports agrees in general with federal agencies that fish can be an important part of a diet and provides high-quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids.   

Consumer Reports based its study on a review of data provided by the FDA and EPA. The organization particularly disagrees with the FDA and EPA’s recommendation of canned light tuna as a low-mercury consumer choice. Light tuna makes up about 70 percent of canned tuna consumption in the U.S., and Consumer Reports says 20 percent of the samples the FDA has tested in the past 10 years contained almost double the average level listed by the agency.

Pregnant women may not be aware that canned light tuna contains relatively high mercury levels. “The brain undergoes a series of complex developmental stages that need to be completed in the right sequence at the right time,” Phillippe Grandjean, an adjunct professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, wrote in the Consumer Reports study.

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The FDA publicly disagreed, saying Consumer Reports “overestimates the native effects and overlooks the strong body of scientific evidence published in the last decade.”

The agency said the benefits of fish to pregnant women, including fetal development and child development are significant. It says fish is low in saturated fats and provides protein, iron, and in some cases vitamin D – and the amount of mercury eaten can be kept at a low, safe level.

“Based on a review of the latest science, we have concluded it is possible for pregnant and breast-feeding women, and women who might become pregnant, to increase growth and developmental benefits to their children by eating more fish than these groups of women typically do,” the FDA said in a statement responding to Consumer Reports. “This can be done while still protecting them from the potentially harmful effects of methyl mercury in fish.”

There are many other choices of seafood that can be eaten several times a week, even by pregnant women and children, including salmon, scallops and tilapia, says Consumer Reports.

Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute said he gives more credence to the June FDA and EPA study, which is a revision of a nutritional report they released in 2004. “I’m willing to put 10 years’ worth of research by the FDA and 110 studies up against Consumer Reports any day of the week,” he said.

Consumer Reports’ Jennifer Shecter, associate director of external relations, told TFT, “The FDA … said they relied on their net effects assessment, which combines benefits and risks. Our approach to risk just looks at the risk – then we advise consumers. In our view, we’re doing a service to consumers by giving them better choices.”

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