Filed Under: Food Scares Seafood

Mercury Decision: Faroe Fiction

This week we’ve been exploring the juiciest tidbits from California’s decisive mercury-in-tuna court ruling. Armed with hard science and free from the influence of activist fearmongers, Judge Robert Dondero ruled that an overzealous Attorney General can’t force warning labels on cans of heart-healthy fish. Dondero concluded that virtually all mercury in ocean fish is naturally occurring, and declared that a high-profile government witness was
“unreliable” and “biased.”
The judge also had plenty to say about a deeply flawed scientific study — the one most often cited by self-anointed “experts” whose campaigns aim to scare the fish right off our plates.

If you saw our “Don’t Eat Whale Meat” ad in The New Yorker, you already know a bit about this study, based in Denmark’s Faroe Islands. On our website, we’ve explored the reasons why this study is an inappropriate basis for mercury warnings. But Judge Dondero does a better job of debunking it than we ever could. Here are some of his most devastating critiques:

Page 32: “ [A]ll islanders were exposed to an unknown amount of mercury primarily through eating pilot whale. According to the Faroe Islands study investigators, the average Faroese adult eats 12 grams of pilot whale muscle and 7 grams of pilot whale blubber per day … the blubber contains substantial amounts of PCB’s, which acted as a significant confounding factor to the epidemiological study. Without a control group, investigators were unable to compare the effects on exposed groups to non-exposed groups.”

Page 33: “[O]ne way that investigators can reliably ascertain exposure to mercury (or another chemical) in an epidemiological study would be to require participants to maintain a food diary. The Faroe Islands investigators, however, did not have the mothers keep a food diary and do not know how much mercury was ingested by any of the women in the study.”

Page 34. “The Faroe investigators also failed to document and analyze the amount of methylmercury, PCBs, and DDT that the children were exposed to postnatally … it is impossible to determine what chemical caused the poor results on the Boston Naming Test.”

Page 35-36: “When the [Faroe] investigators controlled for concurrent PCB exposure, they found that the correlation between methylmercury exposure and performance deficits on the Boston Naming Test was not significant … Although the authors noted that the city children had higher scores on the Boston Naming Test than their rural counterparts (where whale meat was available), they did not consider whether the difference was attributable to the lower levels of PCBs and DDT in the city mothers’ diets.”

As it happens, this Faroe Islands study is the basis for nearly every frightening public message about the trace amounts of mercury in fish. The Environmental Protection Agency’s mercury “Reference Dose” depends on it, as do the campaigns of nearly two dozen activist groups. But with the stroke of his pen, a California judge may have started them all on their inevitable journey to history’s dustbin (and Davy Jones’ locker). Let’s hope environmental regulators — to say nothing of the news media — are paying close attention.

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