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Editor's Note: Why publish old news?

Fiona Robinson
Fiona Robinson
August 01, 2005

Nothing sells newspapers faster than a front-page food-safety scare. The Wall Street Journal published such a story on its Aug. 1 cover: “Mercury and Tuna: U.S. Advice Leaves Lots of Questions.” The story tugged at readers’ hearts with the story of a 10-year-old boy from San Francisco who had reportedly suffered from mercury poisoning back in 2003 after eating 3 to 6 ounces of white albacore tuna every day for more than a year.

Folks in the tuna industry are irate — and they should be. The article shed no new light on mercury and tuna consumption; the only new information was the study of this one child, which occurred two years ago.

Dave Burney, executive director of the U.S. Tuna Foundation, questions how the boy could have mercury toxicity from the amount of tuna he ate, which doesn’t correlate with current research
on tuna consumption. “It’s a preposterous premise,” says Burney.

The USTF intends to meet with the WSJ once it’s got some answers from the boy’s doctor, Jane Hightower. The doctor’s study on mercury toxicity is from just her patients, notes John Stiker, executive VP of Bumble Bee Seafood. A valid study employs double-blind clinical science, and that science already says no one in America is close to being at risk from tuna consumption, he adds.

The article also pits current and former scientists from the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency against each other, and even alleges that the tuna industry has undue influence on the FDA, which is far from the truth, says Burney. If the tuna industry had the FDA in its back pocket, then why did the FDA/EPA joint advisory on seafood issued last year include specific information limiting tuna consumption for at-risk categories? But the damage has been done.

Tuna sales figures for the period when the WSJ article broke weren’t out by press time, but Burney says they’ve definitely been affected, though he is unable to quantify the impact. It’s too bad the tuna industry will suffer fallout from old news that had no merit as a cover story in the WSJ.

In the meantime, the tuna industry hopes its attempt to launch a generic marketing program will be approved by Lent 2006. If the generic campaign does get off the ground, hopefully it won’t be too little, too late, for tuna consumption. The industry’s ultimate challenge is to win back consumers who have bought into the mercury scare fueled by the media.

September 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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