Sustainability is almost a laughing matter (or crying one, rather) when it comes to seafood. Populations are often exploited via overfishing, threatened by poor aquaculture practices, or contaminated by power plant runoff, oil spills, etc. It's truly a sad situation for fish, our number one source of omega-3s.
But Consumer Reports (the magazine produced by Consumers Union) has delivered us the latest unfortunate news, pointing out that mercury rates in tuna surpass EPA's daily limit.
These levels in tuna (a fish high on the aquatic food chain) have been of specific concern for children and pregnant women for some time. Both the FDA and EPA recommend each demographic consume no more than 12 ounces of light tuna (only six ounces of white tuna) per week. These guidelines are too lax, according to new testing. Time Magazine reports:
Every sample that Consumer Reports tested had measurable levels of mercury, ranging from 0.018 to 0.774 parts per million (ppm). Samples of white tuna ranged from 0.217 ppm to 0.774 ppm and averaged 0.427 ppm — enough that by eating 2.5 ounces of any of the tested samples, a woman would exceed the daily mercury intake considered safe by the EPA.
In light of the test results, CU makes its own recommendations that are more cautious than those made by the federal agencies, lowering young children's servings to 4 ounces of light tuna, or 1.5 ounces of white tuna per week. For pregnant women, CU recommends avoiding canned tuna completely and selecting a low-mercury fish instead.
Spikes in certain samples pose a threat to consumers, who have no way of knowing if the canned tuna they purchase has average or unusually high levels of mercury. Mother Jones notes:
Given the fact that mercury content varies dramatically from can to can, Consumers Union recommended in 2006 that the FDA issue a warning that some cans of white tuna may contain levels that exceed those on which the daily consumption recommendations are based. The agency hasn't issued any such warning yet.
Good food advocate Naomi Starkman quotes Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, who provides further evidence that the FDA is behind on seafood regulation.
Halloran noted that there may well be other species that vulnerable groups like pregnant women should avoid, but the FDA needs to conduct more testing to draw conclusions. "The last set of FDA data gathered from 2002-2004 and published in 2006 needs to be updated and the sample size of many species should be increased," she said.
While the government remains hands-off, we’re forced to rely on consumer groups and certain retailers to tell us what is safe and sustainable. Fish consumption is a tricky issue, with problems in one area or another appearing in most types of seafood. The best bet for consumers is to be selective. In terms of mercury, that means eating fish lower on the food chain.
Sarah Damian is Social and New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.