FDA to check tuna
U.S. to investigate mercury levels in canned fish
By Sam Roe
Tribune staff reporter
Published December 31, 2005
The Food and Drug Administration will investigate whether tens of millions of cans of tuna sold each year contain potentially hazardous levels of mercury.
Responding to a Tribune series this month on mercury in fish, the FDA said it will review the possibility that there are elevated mercury levels in some cans of "light tuna," one of America's best-selling seafoods and a product the agency has recommended repeatedly as a low-mercury choice.
The Tribune revealed that the U.S. tuna industry is using a potentially high-mercury tuna species, yellowfin, to make about 15 percent of the 1.2 billion cans of light tuna sold annually. Most of these cans are not labeled yellowfin, making it impossible for consumers to know which cans might be high in mercury.
In an interview, David Acheson, the FDA's chief medical officer, said the agency had been unaware that some canned light tuna was made with a species that often is high in mercury.
"We will definitely look at it through our office of seafood and determine whether there is something that requires further pursuit," Acheson said. He could not say exactly what the investigation would entail or whether the agency would conduct additional testing of canned tuna.
The chief lobbying group for the leading tuna producers--StarKist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea--said the industry would cooperate with the FDA inquiry. The executive director of the U.S. Tuna Foundation, David Burney, said canned light tuna was not a health risk and that its mercury levels were well below government limits. "It's a non-issue," Burney said.
But top consumer and environmental groups called on the tuna industry to stop using yellowfin in canned light tuna.
"It's unforgivable," said Linda Greer, a toxicologist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a leading conservation group. She said it was ironic that "efforts to recommend canned light tuna to people is undermined by industry shoving contaminated fish into the wrong cans."
Almost all of the mercury that people are exposed to comes from eating fish tainted with the toxic metal. Because mercury can harm the developing central nervous system, young children and fetuses are most at risk.
Children exposed to dangerous levels of mercury can suffer subtle learning difficulties, including delays in walking and talking. Adults can experience headaches, fatigue, loss of concentration and numbness in the hands and feet.
While the mercury content in canned yellowfin tuna varies, the industry said the average is about three times higher than that of regular canned light, which generally is made with skipjack, a smaller tuna species with lower mercury levels.
Canned yellowfin, the industry said, has about as much mercury as canned albacore, a product the federal government has warned at-risk groups about because of high amounts of the toxic metal. In 2004, the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency jointly warned young children, pregnant women and women of childbearing age to not eat more than 6 ounces of canned albacore per week.
But no warning exists for canned yellowfin.
The FDA-EPA warning also states that canned light tuna is low in mercury and therefore a wise choice for at-risk groups.
Canned light tuna does have relatively low amounts of mercury on average, but the levels can vary widely. John Stiker, a former Bumble Bee executive, said the use of yellowfin in canned light might result in some cans testing high. A can of light tuna with low levels of mercury might consist of skipjack, Stiker explained, while a can testing high might be solely yellowfin.
`Just plain wrong'
Michael Bender, head of the Mercury Policy Project, a non-profit advocacy group based in Vermont, said the tuna industry's practice of putting yellowfin into canned light without appropriate labels is "just plain wrong."
"If the public doesn't know what species they are eating, they have no way to tell if the product has low, medium or high amounts of mercury," he said.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the revelation that yellowfin is in light tuna makes the federal government's mercury warning "even less protective."
The Tribune series reported that about 180 million cans of light tuna are made with yellowfin each year. Half of those cans are marketed as a gourmet product. StarKist calls its product "Gourmet's Choice," Chicken of the Sea markets a "Tonno" product under the Genova label and Bumble Bee offers a "Tonno in olive oil" variety. Of those, only Genova identifies its product as yellowfin.
As part of its series, the Tribune bought 18 cans of gourmet tuna from area stores and tested them for mercury. The results showed low levels of the toxic metal: 0.06 parts of mercury per million parts of fish tissue, far lower than the 0.35 parts per million average reported by the tuna industry.
Stiker said he was surprised by the results and speculated that Chicago had received shipments of gourmet cans made with small, young yellowfin that would be low in mercury because the toxic metal accumulates up the food chain.
Industry fights warnings
In recent years the tuna industry, fearing class-action lawsuits and a drop in sales, has opposed government efforts to warn consumers about mercury in tuna, federal records show. The industry is especially concerned about warnings regarding canned light tuna, which accounts for 65 percent of all cans of tuna sold. Albacore makes up 35 percent.
Since the Tribune series was published, the Tuna Foundation has defended the use of yellowfin in light tuna.
In an interview, Burney, the foundation director, said gourmet canned tuna is not light tuna but rather "a completely different product."
But gourmet cans prominently say "light tuna" on the labels.
Burney responded to that discrepancy by saying the gourmet canned product "is set off by itself in the stores if you go and get it. It's not set with the cans of light-meat tuna."
But when the Tribune bought gourmet tuna at 18 groceries for its mercury testing, each store sold the gourmet cans alongside the other cans of tuna, which often have similar labels.
The biggest difference is often price: The gourmet version can sell for $1 more.
Burney said consumers who buy light tuna to avoid mercury exposure will not purchase the gourmet cans.
"I think price alone would stop you from getting it," he said, "and I think that it is only sold to people that know what they are getting."
The Tribune also reported that some yellowfin not used in gourmet cans is packaged and sold as regular canned light. Stiker told the Tribune that the industry often catches more yellowfin than it can sell in its gourmet line. So the remainder is sold as regular light tuna without any special labels.
Until recently, Stiker had been Bumble Bee's executive vice president of corporate development and a leading industry spokesman. He left the company Dec. 9, two days before the Tribune published its mercury series. Stiker and Bumble Bee said he was leaving on good terms to head a small coffee company.
When the Tribune first contacted the Tuna Foundation in July for comment regarding the mercury issue, the lobbying group referred the newspaper to Stiker. But the Tuna Foundation now says it disagrees with a statement Stiker made repeatedly in interviews with the newspaper: that it is an industrywide practice to put yellowfin that cannot be sold as a gourmet product into regular canned light.
StarKist and Chicken of the Sea referred questions to the Tuna Foundation. Burney said that while he did not know for sure how Bumble Bee handled yellowfin, StarKist and Chicken of the Sea did not add any fish to regular canned light that would raise the average mercury levels.
He said that when those two companies catch tuna, they separate the large yellowfin from the small ones on the boats. The large yellowfin, which can be higher in mercury, are sent to canneries to be packed as a gourmet product. The small yellowfin, he said, are mixed with skipjack of comparable size and mercury levels, in order to make regular canned light.
Stiker declined to comment on the Tuna Foundation questioning his statements. "I'm done on this topic," he wrote in an e-mail.