Chicago Tribune
January 19, 2006


The USDA's food pyramid recommends eating three fish that the EPA and
the FDA warn are high in mercury. Where should you turn?

By Michael Hawthorne

Swordfish is among the protein sources recommended in the U.S.
Department of Agriculture's new food pyramid, even though two other
federal agencies say the seafood is so contaminated with mercury that
pregnant women and young children shouldn't eat it.

The government's latest dietary advice also points Americans toward
tuna, another fish that can be tainted with high levels of mercury, a
toxic metal that can cause learning disabilities in children and
neurological problems in adults.

One kind of tuna--albacore, or white--has enough mercury that young
children, women of childbearing age, pregnant women and nursing
mothers are advised to eat no more than one serving per week.

Yet the advice from the Food and Drug Administration and the
Environmental Protection Agency isn't listed or linked on the pyramid
Web page that suggests Americans could include swordfish and tuna in
their daily 5 ounces of meat and beans.

The same page offers cautionary advice for other kinds of meat, noting
that "liver and organ meats are high in cholesterol" and "processed
meats such as ham, sausage, frankfurters and luncheon or deli meats
have added sodium."

When the Tribune asked this week about the discrepancy, an Agriculture
Department spokesman said it was an oversight that would be corrected.

"They were looking for information that goes to the general
population, not specific target populations," said John Webster of the
department's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. But the FDA-
EPA mercury warning "is important enough that they are going to look
at how they can highlight it."

The lack of mercury warnings reflects the sometimes contradictory and
often confusing information from the federal government about a toxic
substance found in seafood.

In this case, one agency is telling the nation to eat more fish and
suggesting species that two other agencies say are unsafe for a large
part of the population. The food pyramid even has a drawing of a tuna
can among the sources of protein that should be part of a healthy

Agriculture Department officials aren't sure how they will draw more
attention to the government's mercury warning, Webster said, but the
pyramid likely will have an asterisk next to high-mercury fish.

Nutritional advice in the food pyramid, available at, is based on dietary guidelines released in January
2005. About a year earlier, the FDA and EPA had issued the mercury
warning for seafood with great fanfare.

The warning advises young children, pregnant women, nursing mothers
and women of childbearing age not to eat swordfish, shark, king
mackerel and tilefish because of high mercury levels. It also cautions
those groups to consume no more than 12 ounces of fish a week,
including no more than 6 ounces of canned albacore tuna.

By contrast, the new food pyramid advises consumers to vary their
protein choices but eat at least 5 ounces of meat or beans every day.
Swordfish and tuna are among 29 different types of seafood

The food pyramid also lists mackerel but doesn't say there are
different kinds, including one on the FDA-EPA list of fish that
pregnant women and children shouldn't eat because of mercury

A recent Tribune investigation found that seafood highly contaminated
with mercury is routinely sold in stores across the Chicago area. It
included swordfish so tainted that federal regulators could confiscate
it for violating food safety rules.

Seafood on the pyramid was chosen based on national consumption data,
Webster said. Some other species on the list generally are low in
mercury, including salmon, catfish and shrimp.

The site's only mention of mercury is a link to the FDA-EPA warning
buried at the bottom of another page, below advice such as "choose
fish more often for lunch or dinner" and "store raw meat, poultry and
seafood on the bottom shelf of the refrigerator so juices don't drip
onto other foods."

Eating fish can benefit most people, medical experts agree. Seafood is
low in fat, high in protein and sometimes rich in omega-3 fatty acids
that are thought to help prevent heart disease.

At the same time, though, eating fish exposes people to mercury.
Federal officials don't track how many people in the U.S. have been
harmed, but a recent government study estimated 410,000 babies are
born each year at risk for mercury poisoning because of high levels in
their mothers' bodies. Mercury attacks the developing nervous system,
making young children particularly vulnerable.

The seafood industry argues that the benefits of eating fish outweigh
the risks. The National Fisheries Institute, an industry lobbying
group, promotes the food pyramid on the front page of its Web site,
highlighting the government's suggestion to consume more fish.

"The real risk is that we are going to turn people away from fish, and
fish is an absolutely vital part of a pregnancy," said David Burney,
executive director of the U.S. Tuna Foundation. "If everybody stopped
eating fish during a pregnancy, we would have one hell of a health

The need for clear and complete consumer advice is highlighted by
recent research finding that young children performed better on tests
of memory and visual recognition if their mothers ate fish during
pregnancy. But kids did not see the benefits if their mothers ate fish
with high mercury levels.

"This information is not being adequately disseminated to pregnant
women," said Richard Wiles, vice president of the Environmental
Working Group, a non-profit research organization. "If the food
pyramid can't get it right, how can ordinary Americans?"

Consumer and environmental groups have been arguing for years that the
government should stop worrying that people will quit eating fish and
start telling them which are safest.

"The message is not to do away with fish in your diet," said Caroline
Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the
Public Interest. "What's needed is a shift away from high-mercury
species to those with much lower levels. That should be easy to do for
most consumers if they had the right information."

Copyright 2006, Chicago Tribune