This Should Surprise No One: Dangerous Mercury Levels Found in Sushi Tuna in NYC

I love me some tuna. Toro, maguro, yellowfin-I love them all.

I love the roseate slices draped over nigiri, enrobing the rice and vinegar balls with their delicate flavor and buttery rich texture.

Even more, I love the sensual process of eating tuna sashimi, plucking each slice like the petal of a fleshy blossom, dipping it lightly in wasabi-kissed soy and popping them in my mouth. Sweet, salty, a little hot, definitely sexy.

And I am not the only one. Nearly every one loves tuna.

But, it looks like we may have to moderate our love a little bit in order to keep from poisoning ourselves, our unborn offspring and our nursing babies.

Yesterday, the New York Times published an article where tuna sushi was bought at several Manhattan outlets, both restaurants and stores, and all were found to have elevated amounts of mercury in the flesh of the fish, in some cases, amounts significantly higher than what is considered safe by the EPA.

In fact, some samples of the fish had mercury levels high enough that the FDA could have had them removed from the market. (Of course, the FDA did not take action.)

This is not just bad news for New York sushi lovers, but for everyone who loves tuna.

Because if the fish sold in New York City is contaminated, it is a good bet that the fish sold all across the country, indeed, the world, is contaminated.

Why?

Because it is the way that mercury works in the food chain that is in play here.

Tuna are top-level predators in the ocean; they are at the top of their food chain. Mercury is ingested first, by the plankton and becomes part of their body tissues, then the plankton are ingested by shrimp or other small crustaceans or fish, and then those animals are eaten by larger ones, so on and so on, until we get to the massive tuna, who eat the largest fish.

Each time mercury is eaten, whether directly, as in the case of the plankton, or indirectly, as in the case of the fish who eats the plankton, it settles in the tissues of the animal who eats it. Each time it moves up the food chain, the mercury level rises–it essentially concentrates as it is passed from fish to fish . By the time we get to the tuna, a very large, voracious predator fish–the levels of methyl mercury in its flesh are quite high–in many cases, high enough to be unsafe for children, and pregnant or nursing mothers to safely eat.

What is sad is that this is not a new problem–it has been known for years that tuna is only moderately safe to eat. In 2004, the EPA issued a report warning pregnant and nursing mothers to eat only moderate amounts of certain kinds of seafood, including fresh tuna. It is probably that the EPA/FDA is going to revisit those guidelines and adjust them sometime in the coming year to reflect new data.

A similar study of sushi tuna in Chicago from 2006 also resulted in findings of higher than safe levels of methyl mercury in the fish, similar to the findings of this month’s New York survey. The Chicago survey, however, used a larger number of samples, which, again, points to a larger problem than most people might realize.

In July of last year, one quarter of New Yorkers were found to have elevated mercury levels, primarily from eating fish. The people with the highest amount of mercury in their bloodstream in this survey of New Yorkers were Asians, women and those with higher income levels.

So, what is the big deal about mercury anyway–what is it going to do to us?

For most adults, these levels of mercury are not that problematic, but for women who are of childbearing age, who may be pregnant or nursing, the dangers to their children are sobering.

In a developing fetus, or a breastfeeding infant, mercury can cause neurological and brain deformities, severe physical deformities and can wreak havoc on many developing organ systems. The danger is great for young children, too–so long as a child’s brain and nervous system are developing, mercury can cause significant damage.

((For a more in-depth article on mercury in fish, and its implications for children and women, see my older post here.)

What is the upshot of all of this?

First of all, I think that the FDA and EPA should revisit their guidelines for safe consumption of tuna, particularly in regards to women of childbearing age and children.

And secondly, I think that we need better regulation on the amount of mercury that is allowed to be dumped into our atmosphere by industry; pollution is the major source of the mercury which eventually ends up in blue fin tuna on our plates in sushi restaurants.

Thirdly, perhaps we should be more careful about testing mercury levels in fish before it goes to the marketplace.

Of course, all of this requires money from the government to fund these enterprises, and since these regulations would go against the interests of the fishing industry and various manufacturing, chemical and coal industries, I doubt that much will be done.

Maybe I am just being cynical about all of this, but I don’t really think so–just look at the FDA’s track record on the issue of food safety in the beef industry.

Why should the fish industry be any different?

7 Comments

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  1. This story made me very sad. I love (raw) tuna and missed sushi desperately when I was pregnant. I’ll take yellowtail hamachi and a red maguro slice any time.

    One interesting aspect is the more expensive the tuna, the more mercury it has. Restaurant & really fancy store tuna tuna has more than high-quality store tuna, which has more than low-quality store tuna. A friend of mine ran the stats on how much tuna per week is safe, based on mercury levels:
    - Restaurants: avg. 5.3 +/- 2.4 pieces per week
    - Stores: avg. 15.6 +/- 24.9 pieces per week

    (Yes, fans, to be safe eating supermarket sushi you have to eat negative pieces per week.) (OK, not really. What that really means is mercury levels in store sushi varies a huge amount.) (But I like the negative pieces interpretation better.)

    For those who love canned tuna – this does not represent your risk level. The tuna measured here was overwhelmingly bluefin while canned tuna is albacore.

    I’m not sure we need better regulation – I think what we need is better worldwide enforcement of the regulations we have. A big part of the problem, unfortunately, is illegal dumping and better regulation will not address that issue.

    Maybe under the next administration?

    Comment by Harry — January 25, 2008 #

  2. I can’t eat most tuna, and at this point even canned is on the list. It tastes bad to me, and the fat tastes the worst. Rancid is the best word I can use. I remember liking tuna when I was little, but the older I’ve gotten, the more likely it is that there will be rancid tasting fat. So I’ve pretty much sworn off all tuna.

    A friend’s theory is I’m responding to the mercury content. If that’s the case, I can only hope that the pollution will get controlled enough for me to be able to eat tuna again someday.

    Comment by Emily Cartier — January 25, 2008 #

  3. Rather irrelevant, but hamachi is yellowtail.

    Comment by Jonas — January 25, 2008 #

  4. Thanks, Jonas–I was being a doof and mistaking yellowtail–which is an amberjack, with yellowfin, which is a type of tuna.

    Thanks for pointing that out–I fixed the post.

    Comment by Barbara — January 25, 2008 #

  5. I really hope that tuna is not banned in the marketplace. I rarely eat it because of its cost here in the landlocked state of Colorado, but I do enjoy it as part of my occasional sushi binge (which only happens about every 4 months or so). Consumers should be well educated and then be given the choice to eat it or not. The government should not have that kind of power (the power to dictate food choice) over anyone. This is also why I am so intensely against raw milk bans and foie gras bans (ludicrous!)

    Comment by Roxanne — January 26, 2008 #

  6. Maybe if tuna is banned, the fishing industry (and the fish-eating public) will start putting pressure on the coal industry to quit polluting the world with toxic mercury.

    Not sure if that would help though.

    It’s pretty sad that they’re allowed to poison our food like that.

    Comment by Neohippie — January 26, 2008 #

  7. Thanks for your post on the New York Time’s local story about mercury in sushi. Oceana, an international marine conservation organization, published an even more extensive national study on mercury levels in fresh tuna, swordfish and tilapia from supermarkets, and tuna and mackerel from sushi restaurants. The good news is that mackerel and tilapia are low-mercury fish and can be eaten safely. The bad news is that swordfish and fresh tuna have high levels of mercury, and consumers should be leery.

    The Food and Drug Administration has recommended that women of childbearing age and children completely avoid eating swordfish and limit consumption of fresh tuna to six ounces or less a week. Even if people are familiar with this advice concerning mercury, they probably don’t readily carry it while dining out or shopping for their weekly groceries. Additionally, Oceana’s study found that 87 percent of seafood counter attendants couldn’t provide shoppers with the FDA warning, so you shouldn’t rely on them to give you the government advice either.

    Posting signs in grocery stores would provide this crucial information in a way that is accessible and easily understood. Major grocery companies like Kroger, Safeway and Albertsons are posting the FDA advice at their seafood counters. Still other grocers, like Costco, Publix and A&P, refuse to post a sign and give this important information to their customers. There is no reason to cut seafood totally out of your diet, but it is important to know what kinds of fish are potentially harmful and how to avoid them. Check out Oceana’s new report and get the full story.

    Comment by Katie — January 28, 2008 #

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