« September 2007 Table of Contents
One on One: David Martosko
By James Wright
September 01, 2007
You can't blame cons umers for being confused about
methylmercury in seafood. Unfort unately, mixed messages about
the health risks associated with eating certain types of fish
have led many people to forego eating seafood altogether.
That's where the Center for Consumer Freedom enters the
fray. CCF is a nonprofit Washington, D.C., organization that
wants consumers to be free to buy the products they like - from
pharmaceuticals to fast food - with as little
activist-influenced regulation as possible. David Martosko,
director of research at CCF, knows he must stir the pot a
little himself for that to happen.
One of Martosko's noteworthy consumer campaigns at CCF is
dedicated to fighting misinformation about mercury
contamination in seafood. His group launched the Web site
mercuryfacts.org in 2005 to educate consumers about
methylmercury, the motives behind activist scare tactics and
the vagaries surrounding the federal government's 2004 consumer
alert that urges young children, pregnant women, nursing
mothers and women of childbearing age to avoid eating shark,
king mackerel, tilefish and swordfish while limiting
Martosko, an Ohio native who lives in Virginia with his
wife, Susan, an accomplished opera singer, and 3-year-old
daughter, Lily, is a trained baritone who has sung the national
anthem at dozens of professional sporting events. I caught up
with him in early August to talk about activism, mercury
messages and why he's singing the praises of seafood.
WRIGHT: What do you do for CCF?
MARTOSKO: I'm responsible for looking beyond the horizon and
reading the tea leaves of the government and activist NGOs
[non-governmental organizations] to see what's next with food -
obesity policy, animal rights, food additives, menu labeling,
seafood and toxins, organic, etc. It's a rather broad
portfolio, but I try to forecast what's coming down the
How much time do you devote
to seafood issues?
About a quarter of my time. It's the most interesting thing
I do in terms of science; it's so complicated. Partisans in
government spin their information one way, activists spin it
another way, while the industry reacts. And the shrillest voice
gets the public's attention.
What is the biggest myth about methylmercury in seafood?
That there are large numbers of Americans who are suffering
brain damage because of fish consumption - it simply isn't
happening. There are zero cases; it hasn't been documented. The
latest studies are showing that advising pregnant women to
avoid seafood is a massive mistake. Our government should
revisit its advisories. They're causing the very harm they're
intended to prevent. Eating seafood is one of the smartest
things you can do. It always has been.
How confused are consumers
I'm most concerned about low-income Americans who simply
can't afford smoked salmon. Numbers from AC Nielsen show that,
from 1999 to 2005, about 10 million U.S. families stopped
buying canned tuna. That tells me those people aren't eating
any fish. It's a horrible outcome. There is a public health
catastrophe waiting to happen with low-income Americans.
Why is tuna at the center of the mercury debate?
Because it's ubiquitous. This food scare didn't start with
fish. In the late '90s, partisans in the [Environmental
Protection Agency], along with some activist NGOs, wanted a
rationale to regulate emissions from coal-burning plants. They
recognized it was difficult to mobilize Americans to choose one
form of energy over another. But if you say, "Coal burning is
poisoning your babies through tuna fish," moms get upset. Fish
was collateral damage, but it was really about electricity
generation. They chose the fish that most people identified
with. In the U.K. it might have been cod.
Is science becoming subjective,
or can different
conclusions be drawn from a study?
There's a lot of argument about whether the Faroe Islands
study or the Seychelles study was more accurate. Both were pure
science, but there were some asterisks. Faroe Islanders got
[mercury] from whale meat, which is a lousy model for the
American diet. And you can't extrapolate mercury data from
zero, so the Seychelles study is often simply thrown out.
Choosing one study over another because it fits your model is
What is the least reported health benefit of seafood
[Seafood] protects the elderly from macular degeneration.
Everyone wants women to have healthy babies, but once they
trade in the van for the roadster, do we just forget about
them? Health concerns shouldn't stop when you turn 60.
It's also irresponsible to talk about mercury in fish
without talking about selenium. More than 400 studies show that
selenium and mercury are related as to how the body interacts
with the chemicals. The big conclusion is that the more
selenium in your fish, the better protected you are from
Do activist lawsuits and petitions decrease the efficiency
of the FDA?
Did you just use efficiency and FDA in the same sentence? At
[July's] EPA fish forum in Portland, Maine, I didn't see [EPA
regulators] palling around with anyone from the industry.
There's a lot of undue influence out there.
Are you also considered an activist?
We've been called a lot of things. We're a public education
campaign. What we're not is a lobby group. (Editor's note:
Various food industries, including chain restaurants, provide
financial support to CCF, which conceals their identity.)
Give me your gut reaction on …
Center for Science in the Public
Oceana? More money than brains.
PETA? The Irish Republican
Army of animal rights.
Monterey Bay Aquarium? Irrelevant outside of San Francisco.
A lot of restaurants gratefully accept the free publicity,
Sea Shepherd? High-seas terrorists.
Assistant Editor James Wright can be