Of the contentious political conflicts over the trace amounts of mercury in the fish we eat, none has a higher profile than the courtroom battle playing out in California. Armed with a law intended to warn consumers about lead in paint and cyanide in drinking water, Golden State Attorney General Bill Lockyer is suing America’s largest tuna companies. (He’s joined by a few environmental bounty-hunter groups itching for a slice of any legal damages.) At issue in the case is whether Lockyer can force tuna canners and grocery stores to post scary mercury “WARNING” signs wherever fish is sold. But fear not — a new standard-bearer has emerged from this squabble. On November 8, former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Dr. Louis Sullivan testified in the California case, and his contribution to the debate over mercury in fish was too priceless for us to ignore.
Dr. Sullivan on the importance of telling Americans that fish is a healthy food before scaring them about theoretical risks from mercury:
This is one of the examples of why the issue of how information is presented to the public is important. Yes, the information is here, but the way it’s presented, I don’t think I would eat fish and I eat fish several times a week. But I read that, I think I’d be scared to death because it starts with a warning … it’s not only the information you present but how you present it is important because people will react to that.
Dr. Sullivan on the question of why lawyers (as opposed to health officials) are deciding what nutrition messages should reach the public:
I would question what is the Attorney General’s health or nutrition expertise that gives him or his staff the right to present this in this way as a health warning. Why isn’t the Health Department involved in this? They’re the ones who are trained here in this issue … The Attorney General of the United States was not involved in the food label [under the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act]. The Secretary of Health was involved in the food label.
Dr. Sullivan on the negative impact of posting warning labels where a healthy food is sold:
The result of this, from my perspective as a physician and policymaker, is not to improve the health of Californians. You’re going to scare people away from a healthy food, because, you know, the average citizen believes that he or she is getting information from the Government or from the Health Department, or from whomever, that really has some meaning that they should act on.
And finally, Dr. Sullivan on the perils of ignoring the toxicology maxim that “the dose makes the poison“:
Iron is a substance that is very healthy when taken in the right amounts, we all need it, we all use it, but we can all die from iron poisoning here, so the point is it’s not simply that there’s iron in something, but how much iron. The same thing with mercury … [T]he information needs to be given in context. Giving nutritional information is complicated. Simply throwing something out in no context doesn’t serve the public well.
When one of this nation’s foremost health experts places himself in opposition to the nation’s foremost fear-mongers (including a few environmental reporters at the Chicago Tribune), there may yet be hope. Dr. Sullivan also noted in his testimony that he is the Honorary National Chairman of the March of Dimes program to decrease preterm births. There’s a relationship, he said, between warnings about fish and people decreasing fish consumption — and another relationship between declining fish consumption and a large national increase in preterm births.
At one point Sullivan was asked, under oath, if there is a “scientific consensus” that “people in America would be better off eating more, not less, fish.” His answer: “Very definitely, yes.”