Government Should Warn About Mercury in Fish, Says CSPI

Groups Say FDA Should Urge States to Require Point-of-Purchase Notices


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) should urge states to require easy-to-understand advice about mercury in fish right at the seafood counter, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Such notices would warn high-risk consumers—pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, and young children—not to eat swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish, and they should limit their consumption of fresh, frozen, and canned white tuna.

California already uses point-of-purchase notices similar to the one CSPI proposed to the FDA, and several major grocers, including Safeway and Wild Oats, post versions of their own. But CSPI says a standardized message would be beneficial to state policymakers, retailers, and consumers alike, many of whom are justifiably confused about the risks posed by mercury in seafood.

“The current advisory on mercury in fish is very complex and was clearly not intended for the general public,” said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. “FDA should ask urge supermarkets to put clear information right at the fish counter, where pregnant women or those serving young children can easily see it. That way, pregnant consumers don’t have to avoid the fish counter, but can easily choose alternative seafood that doesn’t carry the risk.”

DeWaal is speaking on Tuesday at an international conference, Seafood and Health, in Washington, D.C.

In 2003, then-FDA Commissioner McClellan wrote in a letter to CSPI, “One of the key needs for an advisory to be successful is for it to be clear and well-communicated. There are many ways that in which this can be achieved, including the use of printed materials at the point-of-purchase.”

Mercury is an environmental pollutant that bioaccumulates in large ocean-dwelling fish, such as swordfish, shark, some types of tuna and king mackerel. Eating seafood is the leading cause of exposure to methylmercury, a reproductive toxin that can cause neurological damage to the developing fetus and young children. Women can avoid the risk by steering clear of fish containing high-levels of mercury for 12 months before becoming pregnant.

In 2001, FDA issued an advisory warning to pregnant women, those planning to become pregnant, nursing mothers and those feeding young children to avoid fish that contain the highest levels of mercury. The advisory was revised in 2004, with the agreement of both the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency. The revision included advice on limiting consumption of white (albacore) tuna to six ounces per week and to limit overall fish consumption to 12 ounces per week.

CSPI’s letter to FDA notes that while California has already implemented a mandatory point-of-purchase advisory, and some chains are adopting them voluntarily, “the size and content of the messages vary. Therefore, FDA would be performing an important service by providing a standard health communication that all fish retailers can use.”

The Natural Resources Defense Council, the Mercury Policy Project, and the environmental group Oceana similarly are calling on the FDA to push point-of-purchase advisories on mercury in seafood.