A Fish Story

According to none other than the US Tuna Foundation, the recent advisory issued by the FDA and EPA “Affirms That Tuna Remains a Safe and Healthy Food Choice.” The USTF’s objective and forthright press release goes on to note that the FDA/EPA release will now help to assure women that it “is safe to eat canned tuna weekly during pregnancy.”

Which is fortunate, because previously there was that grim spectre of mercury-laden tuna that frightened away prospective mothers, mothers who wanted to gain the benefits from eating seafood while eschewing the dangers of methylmercury poisoning. Now, at least, people can know that what they’re eating is safe. Somewhat. Maybe. Well, at any rate, they can know it’s not as dangerous as what they might be doing absent any kind of guidlines.

(From the FDA & EPA’s press release: “[A]s a matter of prudence, women might wish to modify the amount and type of fish they consume if they are planning to become pregnant, pregnant, nursing, or feeding a young child.”)

There’s something to be said for acknowledging that nothing is perfectly, 100% safe; for acknowledging that women should maybe take extra caution when their food’s going to someone else. But when guidelines for fish that pregnant/soon-to-be-pregnant/nursing women provide explicit (“Do not eat” is not exactly ambiguous) advice against eating Shark, Swordfish, King Mackerel, or Tilefish “because they contain high levels of mercury,” you’re driven to wonder: and these fish are safe for the rest of us why?1

But anyway, it’s good to know that the FDA/EPA are strictly set on the cautionary principle. Except that they’re not.

Sez the FDA/EPA, in recommendation #3:

“Check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in your local lakes, rivers and coastal areas. If no advice is available, eat up to six ounces (one average meal) per week of fish you catch from local waters, but don’t consume any other fish during that week.” (emphasis added)

Oh, and the recommended fish noshing—i.e., a pregnant woman eating the maximum fish allowed—would actually possibly push the mercury levels in the consumer’s bloodstream above what the EPA says is risk-free. But at least they’re still not in real danger as far as the FDA is concerned; FDA officials pointed out that women are unlikely to really see any problems until the mercury levels in their bloodstream exceed the risk-free level by 10 times.

Which isn’t to say that this new advisory isn’t some kind of improvement, however slight: previous advisories, apparently, didn’t include any mention of tuna. Chalk one up to the vast wheels of social progress.

(via FDA/EPA Press Release: “FDA and EPA Announce the Revised Consumer Advisory on Methylmercury in Fish” (March 19, 2004); USTF Press Release: “Government Advisory Provides Clear Guidance to Pregnant and Nursing Women about the Importance of Canned Tuna in Their Diets” (March 19, 2004); BoGlo: “2 agencies urge limit on eating tuna,” by Alice Dembner (March 20, 2004); Mercury Policy Project: Exposure To Mercury)

1 So, technically speaking, the kind of mercury found in fish is typically eliminated from an adult’s body fairly easily. But—insofar as I understand it—the elimination is a gradual process, and pretty obviously can’t be independent of the amounts of mercury being ingested; there have to be levels at which mercury can’t be safetly eliminated from a healthy adult’s body (gradual reduction in the amount of mercury in your body relies on you not constantly eating Hg-containing fish). Yet the FDA does not regularly test for mercury in fish, so the safety of mercury in fish for adults is mostly by assumption. Which, in short, seems like it’s not exactly the most brilliant policy ever devised.