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Tuna industry, scientists blast Consumer Reports

- James Wright
July 01, 2006

An article in this month's issue of Consumer Reports recommends that pregnant women avoid eating canned tuna. The magazine, which has a circulation of 4 million and reaches millions more with its Web site, www.consumerreports.org, went even further by recommending that young children limit their tuna consumption.

Immediately after the article "Mercury in tuna, new safety concerns" hit newsstands, the U.S. tuna industry fired back, decrying the magazine's "disservice" to consumers in presenting unsubstantiated information about methylmercury in canned tuna and other seafood.

Anne Forristall Luke, president of the U.S. Tuna Foundation, and others promptly discredited the Consumer Reports conclusions.

"The guidance of the respected scientific, health and nutrition experts gets short shrift, and an American public in dire need of a healthier diet gets short-changed as a result," Luke says.

"In an era when heart disease is spiraling and obesity has become an epidemic, Consumer Reports has done a great disservice in discouraging consumption of canned tuna through inaccurate and incomplete facts."

The article states that, after analyzing Food and Drug Administration data, canned light tuna "sometimes harbors as much" mercury as white tuna, or albacore, and that the FDA should "strengthen its advice to vulnerable groups" such as pregnant women and children.

Consumer Reports says that most of the FDA-tested light-tuna samples contained, on average, only a third as much mercury as white tuna, but that 6 percent of the samples contained as much or twice as much mercury than the average albacore samples. Further, canned light tuna may contain yellowfin tuna, which tends to have higher levels of mercury than skipjack tuna, the species typically found in cans of light tuna, according to the article.

The FDA's reply was swift. Responding to multiple inquiries about its 2004 joint consumer advisory with the Environmental Protection Agency, "What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish," the agency retained its original recommendation that pregnant women, nursing mothers, women of childbearing age and young children keep canned tuna as part of their diets.

"Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet and can contribute to heart health and children's proper growth and development," the FDA noted.

The agency reiterated that pregnant women and children should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish because of elevated levels of methylmercury often found in those species.

David Acheson, M.D., the chief medical officer at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, was quoted in the Consumer Reports article as saying, "If you eat a single can of something that's a little higher than the average, it's not going to do any acute harm."

The FDA restated its original recommendation that consumers should eat up to 12 ounces, or two average meals a week, of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish.

The Center for Consumer Freedom, a nonprofit Washington, D.C., organization, says the magazine should "leave food policy to actual experts like those at the FDA." The scientific community also criticized the 

"This story by Consumer Reports makes sweeping and potentially damaging claims without subjecting its findings to serious scientific review," says Dr. Louis Sullivan, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. "Canned tuna is an excellent source of protein that has the added benefits of including high levels of omega-3 fatty acids that are recognized as having multiple health attributes. Scaring consumers away from this healthy food choice is irresponsible."

- James Wright

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