Meddling with Mercury in Canned Tuna
By now, most of us are aware of the potential risk of mercury in our seafood and how it can be detrimental to our health. We’re familiar with the various warnings, in particular, for women of childbearing age, pregnant/nursing women, and children. It might be surprising however, that canned tuna — a food item many of us include in our diets because it’s considered nutritious, tasty and inexpensive — might also contain high levels of mercury.
Mercury is prevalent in the ocean due to decades of pollution. Consumer Reports states that it accumulates in certain fish due to industrial and natural sources. We are primarily exposed to it through the foods we eat, and there is no greater concentration of mercury in our food chain than what is found in seafood. But which fish contain high levels of mercury and how much is safe to consume? It’s probably not surprising, but the EPA and the FDA currently differ greatly in their policies on this, although it wasn’t always that way.
Back in 1969, the FDA established a policy of .5ppm (parts per million) as an allowable concentration of mercury in commercially sold fish. When the EPA was formed a year later, they followed suit. Both tuna and swordfish were known to have levels of mercury that were closer to 1ppm, double the acceptable amount. As a result, both types of fish were often pulled from stores or blocked from being sold. Between 1969 and 1977, for example, the FDA took samples of canned tuna and found that 23 percent were above the legal and acceptable levels of mercury.
However, in 1977, something crazy happened. That year, the FDA sued a major swordfish supplier for having too much mercury in their products. But the swordfish and tuna industries worked together to counter sue and won, forcing the FDA to raise the acceptable levels of mercury in seafood to 1ppm. The EPA, by the way, still maintains a safety level of .5ppm.
Here we have a food agency — one that is responsible for consumer safety — that allows twice as much of a chemical toxin to exist in our food than the EPA. Exactly how much more? Check it out for yourself in Wendy Ysasi’s video. She explains why mercury is allowed in the seafood we buy.
What kind of canned tuna is out there and what are the mercury levels? Ysasi breaks it down like this…
Chunk Light (skipjack – lower level predator species – less mercury)
Solid white albacore (only albacore; single segment – more mercury)
Chunk white albacore (mixture of muscle segments; Companies can add bluefin or yellowfin, which both have higher levels of mercury)
What’s troubling is that the FDA has the power to do something about this, yet they do not. Consumers Union, which has conducted outside lab testing that revealed high levels of mercury in canned tuna, is trying to nudge the FDA to remind them that they have the authority to pull products from the shelf and that they could do a better job of warning people of risks from consuming products with mercury.
Until the FDA starts acting more like a proper regulator and strengthens its current guidelines, it’s up to consumers to stay informed. Keep that in mind whenever you have a hankering for a hunk of canned tuna, and maybe you should consider reaching for a three or five ounce can instead of a twelve-ounce can.
For other types of seafood lower in mercury… check out our online Smart Seafood Guide!