New York — Today in a New York Times story claiming sushi-grade tuna is “tainted” with “high mercury levels,” health reporter Marian Burros omitted critical information about government standards for mercury levels in fish and seriously misinterpreted their meaning. These errors are significant enough, according to the nonprofit Center for Consumer Freedom, to warrant a complete retraction.

“The Times has published a completely irresponsible piece of ‘science’ journalism,” said Center for Consumer Freedom Research Director David Martosko. “The mistakes are too serious to paper over with a series of quiet corrections. The Times should do the responsible thing and retract the whole article.”

  • The Times neglected to inform readers that the Food and Drug Administration’s methylmercury “Action Level” (1.0 part per million) includes a generous ten-fold safety cushion. FDA has written that the Action Level “was established to limit consumers’ methyl mercury exposure to levels 10 times lower than the lowest levels associated with adverse effects.” In reality, the highest-mercury sample reported by the Times (1.4 ppm) contains less than one-seventh the amount of mercury that might be a cause for health concern.

  • The Times mistakenly claimed that consumers eating a fixed number of pieces of sushi tuna will “reach what the Environmental Protection Agency calls its weekly reference dose.” In fact, EPA writes that “reference doses” are meant to identify levels that are “likely to be without an appreciable risk of deleterious effects during a lifetime.” By definition, it’s not possible for anyone to exceed a reference dose with a single week’s worth of exposure.

  • The Times also omitted information about safety margins built into the EPA’s mercury reference dose. Like the FDA’s Action Level, that reference dose incorporates a ten-fold safety factor. In the example of the highest-mercury sample identified by the Times, a consumer would actually have to eat 26 pieces per week—over an entire lifetime—before accumulating the lowest level of mercury in his or her body associated with adverse health effects in scientific studies.

  • The Times wrote that “mercury enters the environment as an industrial pollutant.” In fact, virtually all the mercury in tuna (an ocean fish) enters the environment naturally through undersea volcanic activity.

  • The Times wrote that “methylmercury [is] the form of mercury found in fish tied to health problems.” In reality, the medical literature contains no documented cases of mercury toxicity from eating fish in the United States; the only cases recorded anywhere occurred more than 40 years ago in Japan as the result of an industrial spill.

“Yellow(fin) journalism like this does a great disservice to ordinary consumers,” added Martosko. “Study after study shows that the documented health benefits of eating fish far outweigh any hypothetical risks. I know the Times is losing money and cutting costs, but maybe they shouldn’t have cut back on their scientific research budget.”

For reliable (and realistic) information about traces of mercury in fish, visit MercuryFacts.org.