FDA Advisory Proposal Fails to Adequately Warn Public About Mercury in Tuna

FDA Refuses to 'Name Names,' Deprives Consumers of the Advice They Need About Mercury-Contaminated Fish

WASHINGTON (December 11, 2003) -- A Food and Drug Administration advisory committee is expected today to approve a dietary advisory for eating mercury-contaminated fish that fails to adequately warn consumers, according to NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council).

The advisory tells consumers to eat no more than 12 ounces of fish per week to avoid dangerous levels of mercury. It also points out that some fish, particularly canned albacore tuna, contain dangerous levels of mercury. But the advisory fails to tell consumers which fish are the most contaminated and should be avoided.

"FDA is refusing to name names," said Linda E. Greer, Ph.D., director of NRDC's Health and Environment Program. "It's not telling us which fish we can eat without worry and which fish we should avoid.

"This is a 'Russian roulette' approach FDA has developed for consumers," she added. "The agency's own data clearly show that there are certain fish that are too highly contaminated with mercury to be eaten, and that there are others, including shrimp, salmon and sardines, that are not a problem."

Like lead, mercury is a potent neurotoxin that especially threatens the brains and nervous systems of fetuses and young children. People are exposed to mercury largely through eating certain fish. Coal-fired power plants, chlorine production facilities and other industrial sources emit the chemical into the environment, and a particularly dangerous form of it--methyl mercury -- accumulates in the tissue of large predator fish, such as shark, swordfish and tuna. Exposure from eating mercury-contaminated fish can lead to a number of neurological diseases and problems, including learning and attention disabilities and mental retardation, and may be linked to the recent increases in neurological diseases such as autism, Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

NRDC also criticized the FDA for not giving specific advice for parents with young children. FDA's advisory says that children should eat less than 12 ounces, but does not state how much less. Children eat far more tuna fish than any other fish.

FDA recently released test results that found canned albacore "white" tuna has three times the mercury level in canned "light" tuna. The levels of mercury in albacore tuna are so high that adults should eat less than one serving a week to stay under EPA's safe dose for mercury, says Dr. Greer. Children, she says, should not eat albacore tuna at all.

"The Bush administration is more concerned about protecting the tuna industry than protecting our children," charged Greer. "By withholding the identity of key fish, the Bush FDA is hiding the most important information from consumers."

Specifically, the FDA proposal fails to adequately inform consumers for a number of reasons, including:

  • Although the proposal states that some fish species have more mercury than others, it does not name the most highly contaminated fish besides for the four FDA identified in 2001: shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tile fish. It leaves out tuna, specifically canned albacore tuna and tuna steaks, which have very high concentrations of mercury. It also leaves out grouper and orange roughy, two popular fish dinner entrees.

  • The proposal does not tell consumers how much tuna they can safely eat. This is critical. Canned tuna accounts for 25 percent to 35 percent of all seafood consumption in the United States. American children eat more than twice as much tuna as any other fish.

  • The proposal states that adults can safely eat as much as 12 ounces of a variety of fish per week. This advice is unscientific. If a woman with a typical weight of 132 pounds ate 12 ounces of canned albacore tuna per week, for example, she would ingest nearly three times EPA's safe dose, according to FDA data. If she ate just one standard 6-ounce can of albacore tuna a week, she would still exceed the EPA safe level by more than one-and-a-half times.

  • The proposal states that children should eat less than 12 ounces of fish, but does not indicate how much less. A 22-pound toddler who eats only 2 ounces of albacore tuna a week would ingest nearly three times the EPA safe level. For an 88-pound child, 6 ounces would be twice EPA's safe level. By telling consumers that children should eat less but not exactly how much less, FDA is providing advice that is of no real use to consumers. Parents need to know exactly how much less albacore tuna their children should eat.

  • The proposal tells consumers not to worry about mercury if they eat 12 ounces or less of a variety of fish a week, without acknowledging that there are many combinations of fish that consumers cannot safely eat together during the same week, according to the agency's own data. FDA data tables indicate that not all combinations are safe.

  • Finally, the proposal does not identify for consumers those fish that are low in mercury, which include salmon, shrimp, clams, tilapia, oysters, crawfish and sardines. The proposal does nothing to guide consumers to make smart choices.

Last year, 44 states and territories issued warnings about eating mercury-contaminated sportsfish such as bass and pike, a 63 percent jump from 1993, when only 27 states had issued such warnings. Seventeen states now have mercury warnings for every inland water body, while 11 states issue warnings for mercury in their coastal waters. NRDC has asked the FDA to set a safe upper limit for each species of mercury-contaminated fish, including tuna. The organization also recommends that the agency require supermarkets and fish markets to post clearly written advisories in their stores to inform the public about which fish are safe to eat and in what quantities.

Mercury in Tuna: NRDC Tells Consumers What the FDA Won't

While the Food and Drug Administration recently released test results that found canned albacore "white" tuna has three times the mercury level in canned "light" tuna, the agency is unwilling to give consumers specific information about safe amounts of tuna -- or any other fish -- to eat. Below NRDC has provided an easy-to-use table so consumers can make informed choices about how often they can safely eat tuna. The table is based on FDA test results and safe levels determined by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Natural Resources Defense Council is a national, non-profit organization of scientists, lawyers and environmental specialists dedicated to protecting public health and the environment. Founded in 1970, NRDC has more than 550,000 members nationwide, served from offices in New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Related NRDC Pages

EPA's Mercury Proposal: More Toxic Pollution for a Longer Time