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Health message debate continues

Scientists say the public health message should be which fish at-risk populations should eat

By Lisa Duchene
December 01, 2008

Customers shopping for seafood at Highland Park Market in Connecticut now see signs and posters encouraging them to eat seafood because it's healthy and to be cautious about species high in mercury. Women who are nursing babies, pregnant or planning a pregnancy are steered toward the species highest in omega-3 fatty acids and lowest in methylmercury and PCBs, such as wild salmon, herring, trout, tilapia, haddock and canned light tuna. The market posted the POS signs developed by the Connecticut Food Association with the state's Department of Public Health in mid-October.

"What we thought was a big issue to consumers really wasn't until we brought it to their attention," says Bryan D evoe, Highland Park's director of perishables. At first, people were alarmed. Then counter staff stepped in to ask customers questions - for example, the age and gender of the swordfish-lover in the house?

The objective is to ensure developing babies get the omega-3 fatty acids beneficial to their health and protect them from the dangers of methylmercury exposure.

"We steer them in a different direction, and generally they're receptive to that," says Devoe. "I haven't seen any drop in our swordfish sales and it's one of our bestsellers. People understand when they need to be concerned and it hasn't really affected us."

When it comes to mercury, an indestructible toxin circulating the globe that threatens seafood's healthy profile, retailers increasingly find themselves asked to deliver health guidance for the fish they sell.

While many post advice as a service to their customers, others hold the opposite view, fearing the mention of mercury will send shoppers straight for the meat case. "As soon as the word 'mercury' is entered [into talk about seafood], it really affects the [seafood] sales and scares people off," says a seafood buyer for a major supermarket chain. For four to six weeks following any headlines about fish and mercury, seafood sales plummet and mercury becomes consumers' No. 1 concern, says the buyer.

Rather than displaying the joint Food and Drug Administration/Environmental Protection Agency federal seafood advisory aimed at protecting fetuses, newborns and young children from the neurological problems linked to mercury in fish, this buyer's supermarket chain is trying to convey the warnings in a positive educational brochure that also explains the important health benefits of fish. The retail seafood counter has become a battleground of sorts over mercury.


Science weighs in

Fish contains both the hugely beneficial omega-3s and the toxin methylmercury in amounts that vary by species and fish. The toxin binds to muscle tissue and can't be washed or cooked away. So the message that protects public health, say scientists, is not whether to eat fish, but which fish to eat.

"While the health concerns about consuming contaminated fish are valid, the public health concerns associated with not consuming seafood are likely greater," says Nils Basu, an environmental toxicologist and mercury expert at the University of Michigan.

"It is extremely challenging to communicate the public health benefits of seafood consumption," says Basu. "Unfortunately, any discussion about the nutritious aspects of seafood consumption will include some discussion of toxic chemicals. When the terms 'toxic chemicals' are put in the same sentence with 'health benefits,' most will likely remember the term 'toxic chemicals.' "

And that threatens the bottom line, scaring many seafood sellers from saying anything at all. Public confusion over canned tuna is pegged as a factor in the drop in per-capita tuna consumption from 3.1 pounds in 2005 to 2.7 pounds in 2007. Still, many buyers are taking action by testing their fish, posting the federal advisory or similar information in a more user-friendly format, and changing their purchasing toward species with lower contamination risks.

Pressure is only mounting for more seafood sellers to take steps to help protect consumers, particularly at-risk populations such as babies and young children, from the dangers of methylmercury.

Here's why:

• Mercury experts will gather in Guiyang, China, in June 2009 for the International Conference on Mercury as a Global Pollutant. When they last gathered in Madison, Wis., in August 2006, 40 experts unanimously endorsed a consensus document stating methylmercury exposures are sufficient to impair several physiological and developmental systems in humans, posing a continued public health problem. The experts endorsed the message of selecting high omega-3, low-mercury fish species.

• An estimated 5 to 10 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age have levels of mercury in their hair and blood exceeding the EPA's reference dose, or the level associated with an increased risk of neurodevelopmental problems with cognitive thinking, memory, attention and fine motor and visual spatial skills, according to EPA. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate 5.7 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age, while two other published scientific analyses estimate this figure to be 8 percent.

New research indicates women living in coastal areas (19.3 percent in the Northeast) and higher-income women have blood-mercury levels of concern.

• At high levels, mercury exposure can harm the brain, heart, kidneys, lungs and immune system of people of all ages, according to the EPA.

• Environmental groups like Oceana are urging their members and consumers to pressure retailers to post the 20 0 4 FDA/EPA joint advisory. Since May 2005, when Oceana launched its campaign to convince supermarket companies to post the advice, about one-third of major U.S. supermarkets have done so, including Whole Foods Market, Safeway, Trader Joe's, Kroger, Costco and Supervalu, says Jackie Savitz, senior campaign director for Oceana, in Washington, D.C.

• About 2,000 metric tons of mercury are released globally each year.

• While trumped by issues like the ailing economy and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, mercury exposure is already on the radar of the Obama administration. As an Illinois senator, President-elect Barack Obama introduced two bills aimed at reducing mercury deposited into the environment in order to reduce the methylmercury in fish.

• San Francisco physician Jane Hightower's book, "Diagnosis: Mercury Money, Politics, and Poison," published by Island Press in late September, details how Hightower pinpointed methylmercury as the culprit for her seafood-
loving patients' nausea, fatigue and difficulty concentrating. Hightower's tenacious inquiry, says her publisher, "sheds light on a system in which, too often, money 
trumps good science and responsible government."

• As seafood buyers grapple with sustainability and partner with conservation groups, they undoubtedly encounter the mercury issue and pressure to take a stand.

"You can't be responsible on sustainability and not tackle the mercury issue," says the chain supermarket buyer. "You've got to do both. We want to do the right thing for our business and our customers."

The National Fisheries Institute's position on mercury, says spokesman Gavin Gibbons, is that "the current and overwhelming weight of science shows that the benefits of eating seafood far outweigh the theoretical risk associated with eating or consuming trace amounts of mercury." NFI is focused on taking that message to doctors and dietitians, the people it believes who are the most appropriate ones to deliver nutritional advice.

Posting the advisory at seafood counters is not appropriate because the message is intended for a specific population segment, not everyone who shops, says Gibbons. "You don't want to be scaring consumers away from a heart-healthy product when you're trying to communicate a very specific message to a very specific population."

The same communication dilemma faces scientists and public health officials.

Basu's advice to consumers and seafood buyers: "It is all about choices, and I think consumers should be aware of the benefits and risks of fish consumption. Not all fish are the same. There are many fish species, such as salmon, tilapia and haddock that are highly nutritious and low in mercury pollution."

In Indiana, low-income women are simply not eating enough fish to give their babies a healthy start and that's of great concern, says Charles Santerre, professor of food toxicology at Purdue University. To that end, Santerre has developed a wallet card giving succinct advice to best protect a developing baby's health that women can carry with them to the supermarket and restaurant.

"I'm in that school that believes we can communicate a two-pronged message to pregnant and nursing women," says Santerre. "Avoid high-mercury fish. Eat fish high in omega-3s."

Santerre believes this kind of information boosts seafood sales, a theory supported by comments from women at focus groups held at a Southern California restaurant to test the card. Women commented that now that they know which fish to avoid and which to eat, they are more comfortable eating fish, says Santerre. "We believe that's the case for a lot of women. They've seen a lot of stories in magazines and newspapers and the radio and they're still not sure what's safe and not safe."

Santerre's group distributed 300,000 of the wallet cards in 2006 with the help of state agencies, Women Infants and Children agencies, Sea Grant and hospital maternity wards. He's hoping to distribute 1 million of the recently revised card.

But what about people whose nervous systems are already developed? "For the average consumer consuming average amounts, studies show benefits in spite of the mercury that's present," says Santerre. "This suggests the benefits from omega-3 outweigh the mercury risk for an adult. I'd caution that it's not healthy for a person to go eat swordfish every day or several times a week and that they could get enough mercury doing that to cause injury."

There is evidence, according to scientists, that methylmercury exposure can increase risk of cardiovascular effects like disease, increased blood pressure and 

There is also emerging research indicating the selenium in fish may offer some protection from the toxicity of methylmercury - and much scientific debate.

In "Dietary and tissue selenium in relation to methylmercury toxicity" published in September 2008 in NeuroToxicology , researchers made the case that comparing mercury and selenium levels in fish is a more accurate way to assess mercury's toxicity, since the two elements act against each other.

"The study of selenium physiology has become one of the fastest-growing areas in biomedical research, and its role in protection against mercury toxicity is also gaining increased attention," wrote Laura Raymond and Nicholas Ralston, scientists at the University of North Dakota.

Says Basu, the University of Michigan environmental toxicologist: "There is evidence from animal studies that selenium may protect against mercury toxicity , but there is no consensus in humans."

Many seafood buyers are not waiting for the science to settle to take action. Some are dealing with the problem by testing methylmercury levels in species of concern like tuna and swordfish.

Plitt Seafood, a Chicago seafood distributor, spent $35,000 this year on a mercury tester and now tests every one of the several hundred tuna it brings in each week.

"It's a piece of capital that I think will easily pay for itself and is necessary. Ever since we started testing, we learned what sizes and areas we could bring tunas in from. We haven't sent one back in months," says Bob Sullivan, Plitt's CEO.

Scientists as well as seafood companies that have tested are noticing methylmercury patterns in size. Swordfish greater than 200 pounds tend to be the ones with mercury levels higher than the FDA's 1 part per million action level.

Legal Sea Foods for three years has been testing every swordfish and tuna it brings in to supply its 34 East Coast restaurants, ensuring the mercury content in each one is below the company's in-house limit of 0.8 parts per million. Fish greater than 250 pounds tend to fail.

The company has rejected about six fish so far this year, most of which have been over 250 pounds, says Rich Vellante, Legal's executive chef.

But you won't find folks in lab coats adding their sterile touch to Legal's dining room atmosphere.

"Tested for purity" is all that Legal's menu says about the issue. "We don't get on the bullhorn and advertise it," adds Vellante.

The waitstaff is briefed on what Legal is doing behind the scenes so it can reassure questioning 
customers, and Legal has received a fair amount of good press on 
its efforts.

"When there are problems and people want to go out and dine and they're nervous about what they're eating, I think the [mercury issue] helps us because we're able to say 'We test every fish,' " says Vellante.

For a number of seafood buyers and sellers, customer service has come to mean taking steps to protect the consumer from the dangers of methylmercury.


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene writes about business and the environment from Bellefonte, Pa.


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