Tuna in the eye of a storm
Tuna sandwiches are big in the US. The Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC- www.spc.int), quoted Heinz North America in August saying Americans eat one third of the 2.2 billion cans of tuna sold each year around the world.
The debate's elements are simple: tuna as a convenience food and containing healthy Omega-3 acids, versus mercury levels where the latter exceed those set by national and international regulators such as WHO.
"Tuna wars could affect public health, says [the US Food and Drug Administration] FDA", said Food Navigator in August. State Attorney General Bill Lockyer had filed a case (due in court this month) against tuna producers Tri-Union Seafoods, Del Monte and Bumble Bee Seafoods. He argues, said Food Navigator, they had failed (under Californian law) to label their albacore and light tuna products with mercury warnings. It said the federal FDA told Lockyer there was no scientific basis for the introduction of such warnings which could have "adverse public health consequences" [because folk would stopped eating health-promoting tuna] and that existing warnings were sufficient.
"The FDA's stance on the matter has met with applause from the tuna industry," said Food Navigator.
The catch of a Delaware state-record 873-pound bluefin tuna by an angler allowed the local The Dispatch newspaper to raise the pros and cons and point out that very old fish would have higher levels. This one did when tested by the conservation group Oceana which is backed by a galaxy of Hollywood stars and companies.
Maryland's official fish consumption adviser Joe Beaman told The Dispatch: "Like everything else, moderation is the key and we recommend people check out our recommendations for fish consumption for all species".
With an estimated 500 million pounds of tuna eaten by Americans each year, stock markets and retailers want hot information. In mid-September, the San Francisco Herald, ran an AP report: "Tests find high mercury levels in some storebought [sic]fish". Saying in 22 US states swordfish and tuna contained mercury, with some [our italics] showing levels above the legal limit...". It quoted Oceana saying the levels in swordfish were just over the government limit.
Halting the source of mercury is part of a wider issue. The website of the New York Attorney General says 11 state Attorneys General (including California's Bill Lockyer) are pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to stop coal-fired power stations pumping mercury into the air. The website said scientists estimate up to 600,000 US children may be born each year with future, mercury-related learning problems and 40 per cent or more New Hampshire and Vermont lakes have excess federal fish mercury levels.
The EU-LomÃ© Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA - www.cta.int) recently carried a Wall Street Journal report on US ten-year old affected by eating a lot of tinned tuna. The CTA also said exporting countries must know "how to deal with chemicals potentially harmful to humans that are present in the oceans, either naturally or because of pollution" and should not let their natural marine wealth "get spoiled".
The Western Fishboat Owners Association (www.wfoa-tuna.org), now has a dedicated mercury section, with reports such as: "Study Finds No Link Between Mercury Levels and Mental Impairment in Adults", "Congressional Review Finds Conclusive Evidence That No American Is at Risk from Trace Amounts of Mercury in Fish".
The WFOA has asked the FDA to study whether their families' high daily consumption of tuna had any mercury impact - the FDA seems to have declined.
In conclusion, WFOA says, "Much of the media hype is very general and not backed up with any reliable information the consumer can use to make an educated decision". The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations seems to share that view in an analysis entitled "OF MAD COWS, FRANKENFISH, POPs AND FAT FOLKS". (www.pcffa.org/fn-feb04.htm).