More Mercury Found in Fresh Tuna, Swordfish

Mercury exposure from fresh seafood has become a serious threat to public health, according to several new studies on the subject.  On Friday, the results of a study of <"">mercury in fresh seafood sponsored by the conservation group Oceana were released, and the results were strikingly similar to a survey of tuna sushi sold in Manhattan food stores and restaurants conducted earlier by The New York Times.   Like The New York Times, Oceana found dangerously high levels of mercury in fresh tuna sushi, and it also found similarly high amounts in tuna steaks and swordfish.  Oceana said that the results of its mercury tests indicate that the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and other federal regulatory agencies have not done enough to insure that consumers are protected from mercury-tainted seafood.

Exposure to even small amounts of mercury over a long period may cause negative health effects including damage to the brain, kidney, lungs, and the developing fetus. In 2004, the FDA joined with the Environmental Protection Agency to warn women who might become pregnant and children to limit their consumption of certain varieties of canned tuna.  However, the FDA mercury advisory does not address the threat from fresh tuna or other fresh seafood.

The Oceana mercury study indicates the FDA may have erred in ignoring the threat posed by mercury contaminated fresh seafood. The group had an independent laboratory conduct tests of 94 samples of fish and sushi bought in 26 U.S. cities.  The fish tested were purchased at grocery stores and sushi restaurants, and included tuna – both steaks and sushi – swordfish, tilapia and sushi mackerel.  The survey revealed that the mercury content of fresh tuna and swordfish approaches or exceeds levels that may pose risks to human health, particularly for children and women planning on becoming pregnant.

According to Oceana, the average mercury concentration for tuna steaks bought in grocery stores was 0.68 parts per million (ppm), which is nearly double the FDA estimate of 0.38 parts per million for fresh or frozen tuna.   Mercury content in sushi tuna was even higher, with an average value of 0.86 ppm. Fully one-third of sushi tuna samples contained mercury exceeding the FDA “action level.”

Oceana’s tests reinforce findings of survey conducted by The New York Times in October.  According to The New York Times, tuna samples from the Manhattan restaurants Nobu Next Door, Sushi Seki, Sushi of Gari and Blue Ribbon Sushi and the food store Gourmet Garage had mercury above one part per million, the “action level” at which the FDA  can take food off the market.  The highest mercury concentration, 1.4 parts per million, was found in tuna from Blue Ribbon Sushi.

Taken together, the mercury testing makes it clear that consumers face a serious threat from tainted seafood.  Because of its findings, Oceana has called on the FDA to require warning signs to be posted where fish covered by U.S. government advisories are sold, including at grocery store seafood counters.  The group also wants to see the FDA increase the frequency of its testing of commonly consumed fish, especially fresh tuna of all species.  And finally, Oceana would like the FDA to consider including fresh tuna (including steaks and sushi) on its “Do Not Eat” list.

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