Food and Behaviour Research

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14 October 2005 - Mercury Levels in Seafood

Source: Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy

New Consumer Research Finds Confusion Over Mercury Levels in Seafood and Perceived Risk to Public Health

Academic Center Launches “Mercury Facts”

Washington, DC; October 14, 2005

With mounting evidence that concerns about mercury in fish may be causing some consumers to disregard important health messages about seafood consumption, a leading academic center today announced the first comprehensive resource directory on the World Wide Web to help the public understand the science-based facts upon which to make their seafood purchasing decisions.

Developed and hosted by the University of Maryland’s newly formed Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy (CFNAP), www.mercuryfacts.org is the outgrowth of a national survey, documenting extensive public confusion about mercury levels in seafood and a growing knowledge gap about which species of fish are high or low in mercury. Conducted for the University of Maryland by Opinion Research Corporation, the poll finds that almost one-third of the public (31 percent) reports being concerned about the amount of mercury in fish and shellfish and as a result, many consumers are cutting back on the amount of seafood they eat.

Coming at a time when there is widespread scientific agreement that seafood is an important part of a healthy diet, the poll finds few Americans eat the amount of fish and shellfish recommended for optimal health. While almost nine in ten adult Americans (89 percent) report eating fish and shellfish at least occasionally, a little over one-third (36 percent) say they eat fish/shellfish once a week or more. This is in direct contrast with the 2005 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which encourages two servings of fish a week. Behind this recommendation is scientific evidence that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish may reduce the risk of heart disease and are associated with optimal brain function and cognition, improved eye and skin health, protection against certain cancers. Research is being conducted to examine a possible therapeutic effect on depression and specific autoimmune diseases including lupus, psoriasis and arthritis.

At the same time, the survey finds that about one third of Americans responsible for the meals of young children say the amount of seafood they are feeding them has changed from one year ago, with 11 percent feeding young children less seafood. According to the survey, half of Americans (47 percent) say they are giving their young children the same amount of seafood versus one year ago while another 23 percent of children under the age of four do not eat seafood. These findings are disturbing in light of the American Heart Association’s 2005 nutrition guidelines for children, which also recommend two servings of fish a week. According to the AHA findings, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish may be important for child growth and development.

“While the health benefits of fish are well known, almost all ocean fish and seafood naturally contain minute amounts of methylmercury. That is why it is so important to reduce public confusion from conflicting messages from various sources -- family, friends, professional colleagues, the media, and the Internet, among others,” said Maureen Storey, Ph.D., Director of the new Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy. “Only when the public understands the state of the science and the messages are clear will consumers be able to separate fact from fiction regarding the real versus perceived risks of consuming seafood as part of a healthy diet.”

Of equal concern to the public health community is eliminating the confusion over the 2004 seafood consumption advice issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Intended for pregnant and nursing women, women who might become pregnant and young children, the advisory tells these individuals they can safely consume up to 12 ounces a week of fish low in mercury, such as shrimp, salmon, pollock, catfish and canned light tuna, and up to 6 ounces a week of canned albacore tuna. The advisory also identifies those types of fish that should be avoided by pregnant and nursing women, women who might become pregnant and young children. These fish are shark, swordfish, tilefish and king mackerel.

But despite these targeted messages, the poll finds most Americans do not understand the FDA/EPA advisory. When asked to whom the advisory applies, a large number of individuals identified the elderly (45 percent), pre-teens and teenagers (35 percent), and men (29 percent), while nearly one-third (30 percent) believe this information applies to all Americans. The poll also finds that the public is very confused about the amount of mercury in commonly consumed types of fish and shellfish. According to the survey, about a third (32 percent) of the public incorrectly said light canned tuna, salmon and shrimp contain higher levels of mercury, while only 4 percent correctly identified swordfish. Even less than1 percent named king mackerel and shark as fish containing higher mercury levels.

Because of this knowledge gap, the Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agriculture Policy created www.realmercuryfacts.org where health professionals, educators, policymakers and the media can conduct individualized searches about the science regarding mercury levels in seafood. Based on a thorough review of the scientific literature, the Web site contains a summary in layman’s terms of the most significant studies and policy papers that have been published and reported to date. The Web site also provides unbiased background information regarding how mercury in seafood is regulated as well as understandable definitions to many of the technical scientific and regulatory terms associated with the mercury debate.

The national opinion poll commissioned by the Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy was conducted by Opinion Research Corporation to assess public attitudes and beliefs about eating fish. The survey was based on telephone interviews with 1,040 adult Americans (522 men, 518 women) using a national probability sample of individuals 18 years of age and older, living in private households in the continental United States. Interviewing was completed during the period June 23-26, 2005. To ensure a reliable and accurate representation of the total national adult population, complete interviews were weighted to known proportions for age, gender, geographic region, and race. The margin of error for the total sample is plus or minus 3.1 percent.

Affiliated with the University of Maryland-College Park, the Center for Food, Nutrition and Agriculture Policy (CFNAP) is a non-partisan, not-for-profit research and education organization dedicated to advancing rational, science-based food, nutrition, and agriculture policy. Through its research, outreach, and educational programs, CFNAP examines complex, and oftentimes contentious, issues facing government policymakers, regulators, agribusinesses, food manufacturers, the media, and consumers. Funding to develop the new Web site was provided through an educational grant from the U.S. Tuna Foundation