Big Tuna is the New Big Tobacco -- A Guest Commentary

Instead of dealing responsibly with the public health threat of mercury, Big Tuna has taken pages from the tobacco industry’s playbook to claim their products do not cause harm.

Big Tuna is the new Big Tobacco. How did the “chicken of the sea” become such a big turkey? Last year, consumer awareness of mercury in seafood drove US canned tuna consumption down 10 percent, costing Big Tuna $150 million. Instead of dealing responsibly with the public health threat of mercury, Big Tuna has taken pages from the tobacco industry’s playbook to claim their products do not cause harm when the science demonstrates otherwise.

Mercury in seafood is well-documented health risk. When the medical community called for stronger federal warnings about mercury in fish, including tuna, Big Tuna lobbied to prevent it. While the FDA and EPA finally issued an advisory in March 2004, they failed to educate the public subsequently, leaving it to the nonprofit community.

The federal advisory states that women who are or might want to become pregnant, nursing mothers, and young children should not eat swordfish, shark, tilefish, and king mackerel. Buried in there, the advisory also tells women of childbearing age and children to limit the amount of tuna they eat.

A simple message, right? However, Big Tuna contradicts ANY medical study that shows risks from mercury and twists science to advocate tuna consumption regardless of actual findings.

For example, a recent Harvard study found that “higher mercury exposure in pregnancy is associated with lower offspring cognitive scores, even at these relatively low levels of exposure.” Mothers who “consumed more fish but had lower mercury levels” saw the benefits of fish. The study said nothing to advocate tuna consumption.


Big Tuna’s interpretation? Women who eat tuna have smarter children. Study after study, Big Tuna generates consumer confusion by spinning studies in their favor. Science tells us mercury is bad and fish without mercury are good, but Big Tuna continues to claim its products are safe. New TV ads encourage young women to eat tuna as a low-calorie meal.

California stood up against Big Tuna. Attorney General Lockyer sued stores and restaurants to post mercury health warning signs, something endorsed by the American Medical Association and required by California law. Big Tuna’s response? The industry sent letters to grocers asking them not to post signs and offering to indemnify stores against liability. Big Tuna even fought against a new San Francisco law requiring the warnings in Spanish and Chinese, too.

Why isn’t the federal government doing something? It is ”“ the Bush administration is promoting tuna, not warning families. The FDA responded to California’s lawsuit by asking the AG to drop the suit because of federal preemption. Wait ”“ the FDA doesn’t want California to require posting the FDA’s warnings? This smells fishy.

Adding to the smelly politics of Big Tuna ”“ NOAA Fisheries, part of the Department of Commerce, is sponsoring a conference in December with a one-sided, pro-industry agenda on health and seafood. The result is a misuse of tax dollars to subsidize tuna when it’s losing customers because of health concerns ”“ wait, that smells of tobacco, too.

Also, NOAA Fisheries may approve regulations to permit an ad council, similar to the “Got Milk?” campaigns, to spend $25 million. Big Tuna calls their campaign “Tuna ”“ A Smart Choice”; we call it “Got Mercury?”

Many supermarket chains promised to post mercury warnings where seafood is sold, similar to California’s signs. This is a simple, inexpensive method of educating consumers. So far, surveys show only Wild Oats is warning consumers in all stores and their customers buy more seafood because of the confidence they have when the information available. The federal government should stop siding with Big Tuna and require mercury warnings where seafood is sold.

So is tuna a “smart choice”? No, the smart choice is eating a balanced diet, which may include low-mercury-level fish. Until Big Tuna has to put labels on its cans, like cigarettes do for pregnant women, the smart choice is to select fish lowest in mercury found at GotMercury.Org, an online mercury calculator.


Eli Saddler, JD, MPH, MA, is a public health professional and attorney for GotMercury.Org, an online mercury in seafood risk calculator and consumer public health education resource.

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