Mercury Fears Have FDA Considering Tuna Sushi BanJan 24, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
Tuna Sushi could become a rarity due to concerns over mercury contamination. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering filing a lawsuit that would take tuna sushi off the market in response to concerns about lab tests conducted for a New York Times article. Researchers found so much mercury in raw tuna sushi—mostly bluefin—that a regular diet of just six pieces a week could pose a health hazard and exceed the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Eating too much mercury can increase a person's risk of cardiovascular disease and other neurological problems. "It doesn't take very high levels of mercury to cause problems," said Dr. Ted Palen, a researcher with Kaiser Permanente. "Fish are notorious for carrying mercury," adding, "It is especially in the oceans and in fresh water because of industrial pollutions, so the mercury gets into the water. The fish ingest it and then the predatory fish eat the smaller fish and the bigger fish eat those fish and it just accumulates in the flesh of the fish." Palen also warns that ingesting too much mercury can damage the developing nervous system of a fetus or young children.
All of the sushi tested was served at New York City restaurants and tests revealed excessive levels of mercury in tuna sushi at 20 locations. Sushi tested from five of the locations had such high mercury levels that the FDA could take legal action to remove the fish from the market. "No one should eat a meal of tuna with mercury levels like those found in the restaurant samples more than about once every three weeks," said Dr. Michael Gochfeld, professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J. Gochfeld analyzed the sushi with Dr. Joanna Burger, professor of life sciences at Rutgers University. Gochfeld is a former chairman of the New Jersey Mercury Task Force and treats patients with mercury poisoning. Six pieces of sushi from most of the samples contained over 49 micrograms of mercury, the amount the EPA deems acceptable for weekly consumption over several months by an adult of average weight, which the agency defines as 154 pounds. The
weight of the fish sampled ranged from 0.18 ounces to 1.26 ounces.
"Mercury levels in bluefin are likely to be very high, regardless of location," said Tim Fitzgerald, a marine scientist for Environmental Defense, an advocacy group working to protect the environment and improve human health. Mercury of more than 1 part per million is the "action level" at which the FDA can take food off the market.
The environmental group Oceana released a study of tuna from 23 U.S. cities. Bear in mind that the FDA's national average for mercury in tuna is 0.38 parts per million. In Seattle, a sample of Philippine yellowfin—ahi—from Costco, contained 0.25 parts per million; in Portland, Philippine ahi from Costco tested at 0.52 parts per million; maguro from a Seattle sushi restaurant contained 0.69 parts per million; and—the worst— U.S.-caught yellowfin at a St. Petersburg, Florida restaurant tested at whopping 1.8 parts per million of mercury.