The FDA released updated data on mercury contamination in dozens of fish species Jan. 20, 2006. The release came, perhaps coincidentally, about one month after the Chicago Tribune ran a scathing investigative series by Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne on contaminants in fish.
On the surface, the results could allow journalists to tell their audiences that many favorite fish dishes are relatively safe to eat, at least as far as mercury contamination.
But the results for many of the species are based only on very old data from 1978. And results for almost all species are based on very limited data. Some have as few as two samples, and the vast majority have fewer than 100. With more data, some of these species might end up with median concentrations similar to those on the forbidden or restricted lists. For instance, the maximum mercury concentration reported for many species is near or above that for one of the four species, king mackerel, that the FDA suggests many vulnerable people avoid entirely. Species with that dubious distinction include Chilean bass, grouper, halibut, Spanish mackerel, scorpionfish, and snapper.
In addition, many of the species for which FDA is providing data have median mercury concentrations near or above that of albacore tuna, for which FDA recommends very limited consumption. Species that fall into this category include many other kinds of tuna, Chilean bass, bluefish, white croaker, grouper, halibut, northern or American lobster, Spanish mackerel, marlin, orange roughy, and scorpionfish.
Nonetheless, FDA says it is not revising its fish consumption recommendations to include these. Spokesman Sebastian Cianci (301-436-2291) acknowledges that these species pose a risk similar to albacore tuna, but says they aren't as popular, so the agency has chosen not to highlight them.
Critics such as Environmental Defense's Becky Goldburg (212-616-1236) say one reason FDA isn't issuing additional cautions is because it doesn't want to adversely impact the fishing industry. ED has pulled together about 60 data sources to create its information on recommended fish consumption, with an emphasis on health.
Other concerns are that US federal standards for mercury concentration are less stringent than those of many other countries (and some US states), that FDA does very little sampling or withdrawal of contaminated fish, and that much more effort should be made to reduce human sources of mercury that end up in fish, says Got Mercury project's Eli Saddler (415-488-0370 x104).
Another consideration is that federal agencies aren't coordinating their messages effectively. In USDA's new set of dietary recommendations, the agency does link to FDA's fish consumption advisory, but the two routes by which it does so are circuitous (Pyramid meat tips at very bottom, and related links under "Food safety information"), and not mentioned on the main food pyramid/meat group, which offers no hints that some fish might be more contaminated than others. However, as part of the agency's response to many public comments since the updated pyramid made its debut eight months ago, more prominent caveats may be added soon, says spokesman John Webster (703-305-7600).
The US Tuna Foundation generally encourages more fish consumption and downplays any risk posed by mercury contamination. See USTF's Mercury web site, and Real Mercury Facts, an effort that it funds in part, along with USDA, the Univ. of MD, and others.
For more information and sources, see TipSheets of Jan. 18, 2006, Sept. 28 and March 30, 2005, Jan. 21, 2004, July 9, 2003, and Aug. 7, 2002.