Natural Foods Merchandiser

"Poisson" or poison?

Consumers who are eating fish for health may put themselves in grave danger. An investigation published by the Chicago Tribune in December revealed toxic levels of mercury in seafood in every store tested in the Chicago area.

According to the Tribune article, "Popular seafood was so tainted that federal regulators could confiscate the fish for violating food safety rules." Except they don't. The Tribune reported that since 1978, the federal government has tested just four samples of walleye and 24 shrimp. And when it finds fish with mercury that exceeds levels permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency, the government does not seize it.

In addition, the Tribune found that U.S. tuna manufacturers often package and sell yellowfin, a high-mercury tuna species, as light tuna—the variety the government has recommended for consumers wishing to reduce their mercury exposure.

In response to the investigation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it would review whether light tuna in fact contains high mercury levels. The U.S. Tuna Foundation sought to ease consumer fears. "When yellowfin is used in canned light tuna, the mercury level is very low," said Dave Burney, executive director of the USTF.

In the meantime, retailers can direct consumers toward fish that has been voluntarily tested for mercury, such as that in the Seafood Safe program, or toward fish oil that has been molecularly distilled. The Seafood Choices Alliance also publishes a guide for retailers, which can be downloaded at

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVII/number 2/p. 6

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