If you thought the activist Environmental Working Group was silly for making hay over Vitamin A, it’s facing some new competition in the “eternally worrisome” department from a group called Food and Water Watch (FWW). This spin-off of Ralph Nader’s hand-wringing Public Citizen group released a so-called dirty dozen list last week, showing what it claims are the 12 most “toxic” fish. As expected, this is flawed piece that guts any hope of objectivity. How unsound is it? For starters, the National Fisheries Institute (a trade group) notes that FWW can’t even get the most basic facts correct:
[A] minimum of research would expose Food & Water Watch’s suggestion that “many” foreign shrimp farms “densely pack their ponds to produce as much as 89,000 pounds of shrimp per acre” as patently ridiculous. In the same paragraph it is suggested that “properly run shrimp farms yield up to 445 pounds per acre.” Both are fairly close to absurd.
An acre should be capable of producing somewhere in the neighborhood of 18 to 22 thousand pounds. 89,000 lbs is a gross exaggeration, while 445 lbs would suggest the farm has serious production problems and mortality issues that should set off alarm bells.
FWW also cites the presence of mercury as a reason that fish like bluefin tuna and Chilean seabass are “toxic.” Since vanishingly small levels of mercury are present in pretty much every fish (and always have been), the presumption seems to be that eating just about any fish presents a health risk.
The Food and Drug Administration has an “Action Level” for mercury in fish, and notes that it was “established to limit consumers’ methyl mercury exposure to levels 10 times lower than the lowest levels associated with adverse effects.” Translation: Take FWW’s worry-wart routine with a ten-fold grain of salt. The EPA (which published a 2004 advisory about the amount of fish pregnant women and children should eat) also uses a heavily padded safety margin in its “Reference Dose.”
Groups like FWW, of course, abuse the government’s hyper-precautionary guidelines in order to churn hype. But if you’re still worried, just remember that there’s not a single case in the medical literature of someone getting mercury poisoning from commercially bought seafood in the United States.
That’s a big reason that schools of top scientists are reminding the public that the well-known benefits of eating fish outweigh the oft-touted but hypothetical risks of mercury. Many are even asking the federal government to immediately update its 2004 advisory so that it reflects the most current research.
In the meantime, you can determine how much fish you can be safely eating at our website named, appropriately, HowMuchFish.com. We’ll be re-launching it soon, with a whole raft of new fish species.