WASHINGTON - July 11 - Defenders of Wildlife today released a report with the Mercury Policy Project (MPP) and the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) showing that the Joint Advisory issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on consumption of light canned tuna consumption does not provide adequate protection for the American public because the agencies' testing failed to adequately consider mercury levels in imported light canned tuna.
In 2004, 51 percent of all light canned tuna on grocery store shelves came from foreign sources. Testing done by Defenders of Wildlife concluded that tuna imported from many Latin American countries, including several samples from Ecuador, had significantly higher mercury concentrations than the FDA had previously attributed to light tuna. More importantly, testing found that the average mercury content in the imported light canned tuna sampled was more than twice the average for light tuna that the FDA found in their test samples and well above their cutoff for "low-mercury" fish.
"Our study shows that, though well-intentioned, the government is not protecting consumers from the dangers of mercury found in light canned tuna to the extent it should. Clearly, further study by the FDA is warranted, especially when one considers the extremely high mercury content our study found in some imported light canned tuna, which makes up the majority of canned tuna sold in this country," said Bob Irvin, Senior Vice President for Conservation Programs at Defenders. "Defenders has been concerned about commercial tuna fishing's impact on dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and other marine creatures. Now with our findings it is clear that more work needs to be done to ensure the safety of consumers as well."
Experts from CSPI and MPP agree with Irvin.
Caroline Smith de Waal of CSPI states, "Defenders of Wildlife's canned tuna testing shows that FDA's 'averages' for mercury in canned light tuna just don't hold water. This means the government's advice is not protective for many pregnant women and children, especially those who eat imported seafood from Latin America, especially Ecuador, buy 'no-name' brands or shop in ethnic neighborhoods."
Michael Bender of MPP is quick to identify yet another unintentionally harmful effect of inadequate government information. "Their advice does not take into account the risks that federally subsidized light canned tuna offerings place on low-income families. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, canned tuna is the fish most heavily consumed by pregnant women and children—hence it is likely to be their largest source of exposure to mercury. I strongly recommend that the government explore alternative animal protein substitutes to tuna for the federally subsidized school lunch program and the federal women, infant and children food package."
The independent testing done for Defenders' study revealed that:
- The overall average of all 164 cans tested—albacore and light tuna combined—was 0.285 parts per million
(ppm), more than twice the FDA's cutoff for "low-mercury" fish.
- Seventy percent of the cans tested contained enough mercury to put a 45-pound child over the EPA's safety standard if that child ate even a single can per week.
- Seven of the 144 cans of light tuna tested were at or above the FDA's action level of 1.0
ppm. The action level is the level of harmful contaminants, such as mercury, above which the agency can take legal action to remove products from store shelves to protect consumers. That means that roughly one in every 20 cans of tuna in our study was unfit for human consumption according to the FDA.
"This problem is the result of harmful environmental policies around the world that allow polluters to release toxic mercury into the air, which eventually finds its way into our waters and ultimately our fish," said Irvin. "In addition, commercial fishing fleets, such as those from Mexico and Ecuador, which routinely set their nets on dolphins in order to catch the larger and older tuna found with them, exacerbate the problem. The older and larger the tuna, the higher the level of mercury accumulated in their bodies. Consequently, many cans of light tuna, especially imported tuna, are on the shelves in stores today and contain mercury in levels well beyond what the FDA currently says is safe to ingest. Consumers need to educate themselves in order to protect their families."
Pending additional government tests on imported tuna and the issuance of new recommendations for tuna consumption, Defenders of Wildlife and its partners recommend that consumers apply the same standards to all canned light tuna that the FDA currently applies to albacore or white tuna: No more than one can (six ounces) per week for adults and one half can (three ounces) or less per week for children.
The entire report and advice on how to protect your family from high levels of mercury exposure from consumption of light canned tuna can be found at