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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 canned-albacore-tuna consumption.

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 pike.


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 
about mercury?

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 incredibly subjective.

What is the least reported health benefit of seafood consumption?

[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 mercury.


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 
Interest? Finger-wagging food 

Oceana? More money than brains.
 PETA? The Irish Republican Army of animal rights.

SeaWeb? Irrelevant.

Monterey Bay Aquarium? Irrelevant outside of San Francisco. A lot of restaurants gratefully accept the free publicity, though.

Sea Shepherd? High-seas terrorists.


Assistant Editor James Wright can be
 e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com


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