Mercury level discussion fires up seafood sector marketers

Two recent sushi tests, one commissioned by The New York Times and another by environmental advocacy group Oceana, reported various levels of mercury in fish samples from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants, and 26 US cities

In the news
Two recent sushi tests, one commissioned by The New York Times and another by environmental advocacy group Oceana, reported various levels of mercury in fish samples from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants, and 26 US cities.

Tuna sushi both in Manhattan and nationwide, as well tuna steaks from grocery stores, were found in some cases to contain mercury levels the FDA considers toxic. Mercury levels in swordfish were found to be even higher. Scientists have warned against the dangers of mercury in Tuna and other fish.

"We just want to inform the public about which fish have a risk of having high mercury content, and are asking people to choose fish more wisely," says Dianne Saenz, Oceana's director of communications in North America.

Why does it matter?
Restaurants reported a decline in sushi sales shortly after The Times story, and fish advocates immediately took the offensive.

The National Fisheries Institute (NFI), a trade group, has raised strenuous objections to the tests, calling them "alarmist" and, in correspondence with The Times and on its Web site, claiming that no one has ever been found to suffer from mercury toxicity as a result of eating fish.

Oceana seized upon the story to urge stores like Costco and Publix to post signage next to fish counters. It also called for the FDA to increase testing of commonly eaten fish and consider adding certain types of fresh tuna to a "do not eat" list.

Jim McCarthy, president and founder of Counter Point Strategies, which is helping the NFI combat the reports, says the NFI is concerned that people will stop eating fish to the detriment of their own health. The ensuing months could provide a case study in how to sway public opinion about what fish to eat, and how much.

Five facts:
1. Fish is a source of protein, vitamins, and minerals; are low in saturated fat; and full of omega-3 fatty acids, which improve cognitive development and lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, according to various scientific studies.

2. The American Heart Association has recommended people eat two 100-gram or 3.5-ounce servings a week of oily fish, such as salmon, rainbow trout, herring, or mackerel.

3. The FDA and EPA have advised women of childbearing age and young children not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish because of their high mercury levels.

4. Mercury occurs naturally in the environment but can also leach into fish through industrial pollution, notes the National Marine Fisheries Service, which in 2006 tallied some 4.3 metric tons of all species of fish landed in the US.

5. There are five types of tuna. Bluefin has been found most frequently to contain the highest levels of mercury, but is much less frequently sold and consumed than Bigeye, Yellowfin, Albacore, or Skipjack.

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