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Thursday, June 8th, 2006
Mercury warning labels a clear win
John Connelly/Seattle Post-Intelligencer
The May 30 Seattle P-I story, "California still fighting to put mercury warnings on canned tuna," shows how difficult it is in the current environment for consumers to get consistent food safety information they can use, in this case about mercury in fish. The recent court decision in California about mercury warning labels on canned tuna is a clear victory for consumers and public health.
Under California's Proposition 65, originally passed in 1986 as a ballot initiative by voters supporting water quality protection, the state's attorney general sued the tuna industry to require warnings about mercury content on canned tuna sold in California.
The court recognized that Proposition 65 does not cover naturally occurring substances (such as mercury) and that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration already has national safety standards and a national consumer education program for pregnant women and young children. Rightfully, Judge Robert Dondero noted that labels could needlessly scare consumers away from fish's proven health benefits.
Heart disease is the leading killer of American men and women, and obesity rates are rising, especially among children. To counter those threats, public health agencies urge consumers to eat seafood for its heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and low-calorie, low-fat protein. Millions of low- and moderate-income families rely on canned tuna for those health benefits.
While trace amounts of mercury can be found in some fish, studies show the health benefits associated with eating seafood far outweigh the potential risks from mercury exposure. A recent study from the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis confirmed that eating less fish (and thus less omega-3 fatty acids) would lead to an increased incidence of stroke and coronary heart disease.
Other scientific evidence shows omega-3 fatty acids can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. In its 2005 Dietary Guidelines, the federal government advises Americans to consume more fish to live "longer, healthier and more active lives."
The American Heart Association urges: "Healthy people should eat omega-3 fatty acids from fish to protect their hearts ... For middle-aged and older men, and postmenopausal women, the benefits of eating fish far outweigh the risks within the established guidelines."
In the meantime, California's unfounded lawsuit demonstrates the need for uniform national food safety standards to replace the 50-state patchwork of food safety warnings existing today. The "National Uniformity for Food Act" before the U.S. Senate would provide consumers nationwide with consistent food safety information, just as we do now with nutrition and allergen labeling. And contrary to opponents' claims, the proposed bill preserves states' existing authority for sanitation, inspection and food emergencies.
The United States, as a national market, needs uniform national food safety standards to inform and protect consumers. The seafood community supports the passage of the National Uniformity for Food Act and the FDA's ongoing efforts to educate Americans about the health and nutritional benefits of fish.
John Connelly is the president of the National Fisheries Institute, the leading trade association for the fish and seafood industry.
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