When it comes to understanding the government’s advice on mercury in seafood, most Americans are hopelessly—and justifiably—lost at sea, according to new survey commissioned by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). Two years after the government advisory was first released, only one in five consumers correctly identified swordfish, shark, or king mackerel as the fish highest in mercury. Confusion over low-mercury containing species was equally evident. While 21 percent of consumers identified salmon as having high mercury levels, another 21 percent believed it has low mercury levels. Salmon, as well as shrimp, catfish, and pollock, contains low levels of mercury.
"The FDA/EPA advisory is neither keeping high-risk consumers away from contaminated fish nor is it helping low-risk consumers to secure the health benefits only available at the fish counter," CSPI wrote in a letter to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) acting commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach. CSPI urged FDA to remedy the confusion by requiring high-mercury advisories at fish counters or right on fish packages.
Mercury is an environmental pollutant that bioaccumulates in large ocean-dwelling fish, such as swordfish, shark, some types of tuna, and king mackerel. Seafood is the leading cause of exposure to methylmercury, which can cause neurological damage to the developing fetus and young children. Women can easily avoid this risk by steering clear of fish containing high levels of mercury for 12 months before becoming pregnant and while pregnant or breastfeeding.
In 2004, FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a joint advisory on mercury in fish, urging pregnant women, nursing mothers, young children, and those planning to become pregnant not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, or tilefish. But the new survey shows that the advisory has not trickled down to the people who need it the most. In fact, 31 percent of pregnant women, women planning on becoming pregnant, and nursing mothers did not know that seafood with high mercury levels could be harmful. Meanwhile, 18 percent of low-risk consumers may have unnecessarily reduced fish intake for reasons related to mercury.
"Relying on consumers to remember which fish contain high mercury levels is just not working," said CSPI food safety director Caroline Smith DeWaal. "It is time for FDA to do more. Labeling, both through notices at the seafood counter and directly on packages of fish, could easily help at-risk consumers avoid fish high in mercury and might bring others back to the fish counter."
CSPI’s survey demonstrated that high-risk consumers preferred by a 12-to-one margin the use of labels on or near the fresh fish with high mercury content over the current practice of informing consumers through industry or government websites. Among all consumers surveyed, support for such labeling was equally strong, with a margin of 14-to-one.
While the state of California uses point-of-purchase displays to remind consumers about the government’s advice, and some grocery chains voluntarily use signage of their own design, CSPI says that a standardized label for high mercury-containing fish would be the most effective system. In 2003, then-FDA commissioner Mark McClellan told CSPI that printed materials at the point of purchase could be one of many ways advice about mercury could be communicated, but since then the FDA has done very little to advance that idea, according to CSPI.
The random digit-dial nationally projectable survey of 1,018 adults, was conducted by Opinion Research Corporation from June 22 to June 25, 2006.