Mercury Rising: ‘Chicago Tribune’ Series on Tuna Prompts FDA Probe

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By: Mark Ftizgerald

A Chicago Tribune investigative series about mercury in fish sold to consumers is prompting the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to investigate whether “tens of millions of cans of tuna sold each year contain potentially hazardous levels of mercury,” the newspaper reported over the weekend.

The FDA’s chief medical officer, David Acheson, told the newspaper that the agency will investigate the Tribune’s findings that some cans of “light tuna” — a popular American seafood the federal government recommends as a low-mercury choice — is often actually the yellowfin tuna species, which has a high mercury level.

“We will definitely look at it through our office of seafood and determine whether there is something that requires further pursuit,” Acheson said, according to the article by Tribune reporter Sam Roe.

Roe and Tribune environmental writer Michael Hawthorne reported in the three-part series “The Mercury Menace” that supermarkets routinely sell seafood that is highly contaminated with mercury–and that some of the most popular seafood it tested “was so tainted that federal regulators could confiscate the fish for violating food safety rules.”

The series documented that federal regulators rarely even test some types of seafood for mercury, let alone seize fish with mercury above allowable U.S. limits.

Among the paper’s finding was that eating canned tuna “is far more hazardous than what the government and industry have led consumers to believe,” chiefly because shoppers often cannot tell from the label whether an individual can contains tuna of a high- or low-mercury species.

The series said U.S. tuna companies use the potentially high-mercury yellowfin tuna to make about 15 percent of the 1.2 billion cans of light tuna sold annually. Most of these cans, the paper said, are not labeled yellowfin.

Mercury can damage the central nervous system of children, so young children, pregnant and nursing women or women who could get pregnant are advised to limit the consumption of some high-mercury fish such as swordfish or canned yellowfin tuna.

The Tribune’s mercury testing for the series, which ran Dec. 11-13, was, for some types of seafood, more extensive than the federal government has done in the last quarter-century, according to the newspaper.

The Tribune bought 18 samples each of eight kinds of fish at supermarkets and fish markets around the Chicago area. The samples, including the two types of canned tuna, were sent for testing to a laboratory at Rutgers University in New Jersey.

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