Filed Under: Food Scares Seafood

Dredging Up Sushi Scares

Today the American Museum of Natural History and researchers at Rutgers University with longstanding ties to seafood scare campaigns are reporting the results of some tuna sushi analysis in the journal Biology Letters. Analyzing the trace mercury levels of fish samples from restaurants and supermarkets, they warn that these tiny mercury concentrations “approach or exceed” safety guidelines set by the federal government. This is just the latest ride on the merry-go-round of mercury scaremongering—and quite similar, in fact, to a deeply flawed 2008 New York Times report.

The Food and Drug Administration’s methyl mercury “Action Level” (that 1 part per million safety guideline the Museum’s press release refers to) already includes a generous ten-fold safety cushion. And the FDA has written that the Action Level “was established to limit consumers’ methyl mercury exposure to levels 10 times lower than the lowest levels associated with adverse effects.” (Emphasis added.)

In contrast, the Rutgers researchers only found one kind of tuna (out of the five species tested) in which the average mercury content surpassed the FDA’s safety-cushioned Action Level. And the highest mercury content reported in any of the samples was less than a quarter of what might be a legitimate cause for human health concern.

That’s right—might. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “finding a measurable amount of mercury in blood or urine does not mean that levels of mercury cause an adverse health effect.” Today’s Japanese eat 8 times as much fish as Americans and show no health consequences. Simply, the well-documented health benefits of consuming fish far outweigh any supposed health risks.

You’d think scientists would know better than to exploit fears of mercury in food. But all this press coverage is really about showcasing a new DNA testing technology, so the public health impact is apparently taking a backseat.

As we’re explaining to the media today, there’s really no reason to toss the toro or avoid the akami:

All tuna should be considered a health food, since none of the tuna that sushi lovers crave contains harmful mercury levels. The American Museum of Natural History is raising an unjustified alarm. The entire body of medical literature contains zero American cases of mercury poisoning from the consumption of commercially caught fish. But evidence of fish’s health benefits is plentiful.

According to scientists at the Harvard School of Public Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the benefits of a nutrient-packed diet of seafood far outweigh any hypothetical risk from trace levels of naturally-occurring toxins.

Visit our seafood calculator to learn, well … how much fish you can actually eat without the slightest hypothetical worry.

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