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Testing Finds High Level of Mercury in Store-Bought Fish in Michigan

Point-of-Sale Warnings Needed Where Fish Is Sold
September 16, 2005

For Immediate Release



Ann Arbor, Michigan — Ecology Center today released the results of a major 22-state mercury testing project which included samples of swordfish and tuna taken from Kroger in Michigan. The national project, led by Oceana and the Mercury Policy Project, confirmed that store-bought swordfish and tuna contain levels of mercury that the federal government has determined may be hazardous to human health, particularly children.

Swordfish sampled at Kroger in Ann Arbor was found to contain a mercury concentration of 1.46 ppm. Tuna purchased at the same store was found to have 0.26 ppm mercury.

An average mercury concentration of 1.1 parts per million (ppm) was found in the swordfish tested. That level exceeds the FDA Action Level for commercial fish, which is the limit at which the agency can take legal action to remove a product from the market. Two samples, including one from Maine and one from Rhode Island, contained over 2 ppm, twice the FDA Action Level. The testing results also suggest that a random shopper buying swordfish in a grocery store has a 50 percent chance of buying a swordfish steak with mercury levels considered unsafe by the FDA

The groups reported that mercury concentrations in samples of fresh or frozen tuna steaks averaged 0.33 ppm, a level comparable to that of canned albacore tuna, a fish specifically targeted for limited consumption by women of childbearing age and children in the 2004 joint advisory from the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Buried in the second page of the same advisory is similar consumption advice for tuna steaks.

The analysis was more comprehensive than any recently performed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and included samples purchased at popular supermarket chains across the country, such as Whole Foods, Safeway, Shaw’s, and Albertsons. Swordfish and tuna samples bought in Michigan and 21 other states were tested at the University of North Carolina’s Environmental Quality Institute between July 7 and August 11.

“This study should serve as a wake-up call for anyone who routinely eats swordfish or tuna, as well as for the supermarkets who sell it,” said Claudette Juska, project coordinator at the Ecology Center. “Michigan residents have a right to know what’s in the food they buy, and posting warning signs in grocery stores is a simple, common-sense solution.”

This project analyzed six times more swordfish than the FDA has in the past five years combined, and eight times more tuna that the FDA has in the past eight years, according to the FDAÕs database. The groups called on the FDA to improve its testing program.

“The federal government has done far too little to educate the public about the danger of eating fish high in mercury,” said Michael Bender, Director of the Mercury Policy Project. “Until it starts doing a better job of informing its citizens of the threat mercury poses to the public health, our hope is that supermarkets will pick up the slack and post signs so their customers will know what they’re feeding their families.”

To protect and inform the public about the risks of mercury poisoning, the coalition produced these recommendations:

  • State and federal governments should require warnings to be posted where fish covered by government advisories are sold.
  • In the absence of federal and state requirements, grocery stores should post signs to communicate mercury advisories.
  • The FDA should regularly test commercial fish for mercury content.
  • The FDA should not interfere with states’ efforts to educate citizens about mercury in seafood.

“Of course, the most important recommendation is to get the mercury out of the fish by addressing major mercury sources like power plants and products that contain mercury,” said Juska. “We must move quickly to produce warnings now, but in the long run, we need to better protect one of the most important food sources we have, and a source of critical nutrients.”

Mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin that has been linked to learning disabilities and developmental delays in children, as well as damage to the heart, nervous system and kidneys in adults. Mercury enters the environment via pollution from power plants, chlorine production facilities, waste incinerators and other sources. Forty-five states have issued advisories warning sensitive populations about the dangers of eating mercury-contaminated fish, and in 2004, the FDA and the EPA advised women of childbearing age and young children to avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, and to limit consumption of canned albacore tuna and fresh tuna to 6 oz. per week.

Fish were collected from: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin. The fish were bought in major grocery stores, including Shaw’s, Whole Foods, Albertsons, Sav-a-Center, Winn-Dixie, Dominick’s, Kroger, Trader Joe’s, Genuardi’s, Safeway and Carrs.

Warning signs are currently posted where fish is sold at several of the above listed grocery chains in California. Download a sample sign that is currently used in California.