Department of Regulatory Corruption

Yet another tale of government actively supporting business instead of the general public. Just disgusting, really. In my ignorance, I though the government was supposed to protect citizens. Instead, corporate profits trumps national health, every freaking time. - Mercury and Tuna: U.S. Advice Leaves Lots of Questions, by Peter Waldman,

The tuna industry has continued to aim some marketing at pregnant women and kids. An ad sponsored by the U.S. Tuna Foundation last year, which specified the new federal consumption guidelines, reassured “pregnant and nursing women and young children” that canned tuna “is absolutely safe to eat.” Extolling the benefits of fish's omega-3 fatty acids for babies' eyes and brains, the ad said: “No government study has ever found unsafe levels of mercury in women or young children who eat canned tuna.”

Oh, ok. Can I have extra mercury on my tuna-on-rye, please?

One reason she [Joan Elan Davis- parent of Matthew Davis, who ate tuna fish daily, and ended up with brain damage and other problems ] didn't know [that tuna has high levels of mercury ] was that the government had never said so. The FDA had known for many years that canned tuna contained mercury, which studies link to learning impairment in children. Consumer groups long urged the agency to address the issue. But it wasn't until March 2004, after regulatory tussles between health advocates and the tuna industry and between clashing scientists for the FDA and EPA, that those agencies issued a mercury advisory that cited tuna. That joint EPA and FDA advisory urged limits on how much tuna children and some women should eat.
But the limits set in the advisory may exceed safe levels for some people, judging by a mercury risk assessment that the EPA produced on its own years earlier.
The federal advisory said that nursing mothers and women who are pregnant or may become so should eat no more than 12 ounces of chunk light tuna a week. For solid white albacore, which is higher in mercury, it set a six-ounce weekly limit. Young children, it said, should eat “smaller portions.” No advice was given for men or older women.
The maximum mercury ingestion the EPA deems safe is one microgram a day for each 22 pounds of body weight. If a 130-pound woman ate as much albacore tuna as the joint federal advisory allows, she would exceed that safe level by 40%.
If the joint advisory had been available in 2003 and the Davises, following its advice about “smaller portions” for children, had given Matthew just half a can of albacore a week, he still would have consumed 60% more mercury than the EPA can say with confidence is safe.
“This is a glaring example of shutting out science,” says Vas Aposhian, a University of Arizona toxicologist. He quit the FDA's Food Advisory Committee in early 2004 because he felt the agency ignored the panel's instructions to hew closely to the EPA's mercury maximum.
...The struggle to find the right balance on mercury is part of a larger issue: How to deal with dozens of industrial chemicals now known to linger in the environment and the human body in trace amounts. Mercury emissions, about 40% of which in the U.S. come from coal-fired power plants, settle into oceans, lakes and rivers. Then people take in mercury by eating large fish that have accumulated an organic form of the metal in their flesh by consuming smaller fish. People vary in how they react to mercury they ingest and how fast they purge it. The EPA's exposure limit is based on its calculation that mercury above 5.8 parts per billion in young women's bloodstreams may pose a danger to their babies. By this measure, 5.7% of U.S. infants, or 228,000 a year, could be at risk of mercury poisoning during gestation, based on the latest blood survey of women of childbearing age by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The maximum safe level might be lower still, says the EPA's top mercury risk assessor, Kathryn Mahaffey, based on recent evidence that fetuses concentrate more mercury in their blood than do their pregnant mothers. Former EPA Administrator Michael Leavitt says the reason the government didn't make the mercury-in-fish advisory tougher was to avoid scaring people away from fish. “Mercury is bad and fish is good. We needed to choose the right words that would give people a sense of knowledge without creating unwarranted fear,” says Mr. Leavitt, now head of the Health and Human Services Department. He adds that scientists, not bureaucrats, worked out the guidelines, reconciling the varying views of FDA and EPA researchers.
Food companies have long lobbied to mitigate any FDA action on canned tuna, one of the top-grossing supermarket items in revenue per unit of shelf space. Five years ago, after risk assessments by the EPA and the National Academy of Sciences raised fresh worries about mercury, the FDA began preparing to revise a 1979 advisory that said it was all right to consume four micrograms of mercury a day per 22 pounds of body weight -- four times the EPA's maximum.

Food companies urged the FDA not to single out canned tuna. In private meetings with FDA officials in fall 2000, industry and agency documents show, the industry argued that health data were inconclusive, that citing canned tuna would drive down its consumption by 19% to 24%, and that seafood producers “would face the distinct possibility of numerous class action lawsuits.”

A strict advisory “could have an irreversible impact on American dietary habits, profoundly affecting consumers and producers of seafood and resulting in significant segments of the population turning away from the proven health benefits of fish consumption,” said a 2000 letter to an FDA commissioner from three trade groups: the National Food Processors Association, the National Fisheries Institute and the U.S. Tuna Foundation.

yes, that's just splendid. So what if people who eat canned tuna get mercury poisoning, brain damage, and other health problems, tuna is one of the top grossing supermarket items. Much more important.

and then, this:

When the FDA issued a revised mercury advisory in 2001, it urged women of childbearing age to shun four high-mercury species: swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico. It didn't mention tuna. Yet cumulatively, according to data provided by the EPA, the four species it urged avoiding account for less than 10% of Americans' mercury ingestion from fish, while canned tuna accounts for about 34% of it.
Some EPA scientists griped that FDA officials were coddling food companies. “They really consider the fish industry to be their clients, rather than the U.S. public,” charges Deborah Rice, a former EPA toxicologist now working for the state of Maine. The FDA's Dr. Acheson denies that commercial concerns played a role in the agency's decision making.

Thanks, FDA.

More disgusting quotes after the jump:

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In April 2003, his agency changed course, following years of prodding by health advocates, some members of Congress and the agency's own outside food advisory panel. The FDA said it would base future mercury warnings on the EPA's stricter limit. Late in 2003, FDA and EPA officials proposed their first joint mercury advisory at a meeting of the FDA's Food Advisory Committee.
At the hearing, FDA scientists said they had put fish in three categories: high in mercury, medium and low. The level for the low-mercury group was that of canned light tuna, explained FDA official Clark Carrington. “In order to keep the market share at a reasonable level, we felt like we had to keep light tuna in the low-mercury group,” he said, according to the meeting's official transcript.

Later, the FDA's Dr. Acheson reiterated that point. He told the meeting the fish categories “were arbitrarily chosen to put light tuna in the low category.”
Says Maine's Dr. Rice: “Here's the FDA making what are supposed to be scientific decisions on the basis of market share. What else is there to say?”


The FDA's outside advisory panel asked the agencies to rework the advisory, saying it didn't adequately spell out mercury risks from canned tuna. In particular, members of the panel urged a specific warning about the higher-mercury albacore tuna.
But food processors lobbied the administration. At the White House, they implored officials not to single out albacore. They said doing so would only drive people, especially the poor, to eat more junk food, says a scientist who was there.
In meetings with companies, there are indications administration officials sometimes expressed views not in sync with those of all agency scientists.

At the EPA, three companies met with Steve Johnson, then deputy administrator, on Feb. 23, 2004. The three were the StarKist unit of Del Monte Foods Co.; Chicken of the Sea, part of Thailand's Thai Union Frozen Products PCL; and Bumble Bee, which is owned by Connors Bros. Income Fund in Toronto.
The three companies later wrote to then-EPA chief Mr. Leavitt that Mr. Johnson -- who now heads the agency -- had assured them that “the EPA did not consider any children to be at risk from mercury poisoning.” An EPA spokeswoman denies Mr. Johnson said that. Asked about the denial, Bumble Bee's Mr. Stiker said, “I was at the meeting. It was clear that that was said at the meeting by Steve Johnson and others in that room.... We were assured the EPA did not consider any U.S. children to be at risk of mercury poisoning.”
The FDA tested the planned advisory with focus groups of women of childbearing age, the target of the warning. Some complained they didn't understand the vague advice to give kids “smaller portions.” Others said the advisory was ambiguous because it encouraged them to eat fish but not too much.

Deny, deny deny...

Spokeswomen for StarKist and Chicken of the Sea referred questions to the U.S. Tuna Foundation. The trade group's executive director, David Burney, says the study of mercury in heavy fish eaters of the Faroe Islands had found only minor effects in kids. It wasn't as if they “couldn't function in school,” he says, adding: “There is no connection between a learning disability and mercury.”
The notion that chronic, low-level mercury exposure can diminish children's learning capacity was affirmed in 2000 by a panel of experts convened by the National Academy of Sciences. Citing “a large body of scientific evidence showing adverse neurodevelopmental effects” on children from mercury, the NAS panel endorsed the EPA's choice of the 1997 Faroe Islands study, led by Philippe Grandjean of Harvard, as the basis for the agency's reference dose.

Mr. Burney maintains that no Americans come close to having a toxic level of mercury in their blood. Accordingly, he rejects the notion that Matthew Davis or anyone else could get mercury poisoning from eating canned tuna. “That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard in my life,” Mr. Burney says.
Bumble Bee's Mr. Stiker, when told of Matthew's problem, said it didn't make sense to him because only early-childhood development can be affected by trace amounts of mercury. “The hype has far outstripped the science” on mercury in fish, he said, with the result that canned-tuna sales are falling more than 10% a year. “We're getting killed because of this perception,” he said.

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This page contains a single entry by Seth A. published on August 1, 2005 9:52 AM.

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