Canned Tuna Pregnancy Scare Smells Fishy

Self-styled consumer watchdog Consumer Reports issued a “new” warning about the safety of canned tuna this week. It’s too bad the magazine didn’t also include a warning to readers about its long-standing agenda of junk science-based food fearmongering.

“We scrutinized the results of [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] tests posted recently on [FDA’s] web site and, as expected, found that most cans of light tuna had only a third as much mercury, on average, as white tuna, also known as albacore. But 6 percent of the light-tuna samples contained at least as much [mercury] – in some cases twice as much – as the average in albacore,” reported Consumer Reports.

Although Consumer Reports acknowledged that, “The FDA has not warned consumers about those occasionally higher mercury levels because it believes the levels don’t pose any significant threat,” the magazine then stated, “But [our] experts note that some cans are much higher in mercury than average [and] they say there’s enough uncertainty about the safety of even brief exposure of the fetus to such higher mercury levels that a more cautious approach is warranted.”

The latter statement was immediately reported as a “new” warning by newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune (“New warning for canned tuna; Mercury risk for pregnant women too high, Consumer Reports says”) and USA Today (“Consumer Reports warns women about canned tuna”).

The media might, however, have checked a few facts before running with Consumer Report’s canned tuna scare.

First, all the new test results for canned tuna are below the FDA’s limit for mercury in commercial fish of 1.0 part per million (ppm). The median level of mercury measured in the FDA’s test of canned tuna fish was 0.075 ppm and the maximum detected was 0.852 ppm. Moreover, the 1.0 ppm level set by the FDA is not a safety level – rather it is a conservatively-set regulatory level that has an additional margin-of-safety built-in to it.

Next – and most importantly – there are no reports in the medical literature of anyone being harmed by the typically low levels of mercury found in canned tuna.

With no victims and no canned tuna violating stringent FDA limits for mercury, Consumer Reports’ new warning is quite perplexing – that is, unless you’re familiar with the magazine’s politics.

While Consumer Reports generally publishes perfectly fine, non-political reviews of toasters, televisions and the like, it has a history of using questionable data and analysis to develop sensational reports that advance the political agenda of its Nader-like publisher, Consumers Union.

Consumers Union is a left-leaning lobbying group that often advocates extreme environmental positions. From time to time, certain articles in Consumer Reports appear designed to advance that social and political agenda.

The historical high water mark for junk science at Consumer Reports was its participation in the groundless 1989 scare over the agricultural chemical Alar. But Consumers Union also has an extensive track record of attacking food biotechnology, conventional milk, plastics, pesticides and SUVs to name just a few of its political targets – all through Consumer Reports.

In a January 1998 Consumer Reports article, entitled “Greener Greens (The truth about organic food),” the magazine reported on its own survey of pesticide residues on produce in the same sort of misleading manner as in this week’s canned tuna report. Consumer Reports stated in the January 1998 article that, “One-fourth of our organic samples had traces of pesticides, compared to 55 percent of the green-labeled samples and 77 percent of the unlabeled conventional samples... Our tests show that ‘organic’ doesn't necessarily mean ‘pesticide free’. ”

Omitted from the article was mention of the fact that pesticide residues found in food, whether organic or not, are virtually always well-within levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the EPA standards – like the FDA’s limits for mercury in fish – are set well below levels that may cause health effects. This is why “no disease has ever been documented that stems from legal application of pesticides,” according to staunch pesticide opponent, Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine.

Consumers Union’s political advocacy, ironically, is decidedly anti-consumer. It needlessly alarms consumers about the safety of certain consumer goods. This reduces consumer choice by scaring consumers away from products.

If Consumers Union continues playing politics through Consumer Reports, the magazine may need to be renamed Consumer Distorts.

Steven Milloy publishes junk science expert advocate of free enterprise Competitive Enterprise Institute

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