Focus consumer scrutiny on health aspects of fish

Focus consumer scrutiny on health aspects of fish

Berman on Offense

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editors and management of Nation’s Restaurant News.

A Consumer Reports study released in October had some troubling findings. The publication reported that consumers are getting ripped off when they buy fish. It seems many species sold at the grocery store are mislabeled.


Some store-bought fish was found to be cheaper varieties of similar-looking seafood. 


Clearly, there’s an area that needs to be improved — quickly — before consumers lose trust in the fact that what they’re ordering is actually what they’re getting and skip seafood establishments altogether.


But I take issue with one part of the Consumer Reports analysis. Consumer Reports uses this mislabeling to create — once again — unnecessary fear over mercury in fish. Why? Because it found one sample labeled grouper that was actually tilefish, a species that is more likely to have an elevated mercury content. And that’s only true if it’s Gulf of Mexico tilefish. Atlantic tilefish actually contains less mercury than grouper, on average, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration data.


“Higher” is simply a relative term. What’s the context? What’s the risk to consumers?


Using data from the federal government, our HowMuchFish.com calculator determines that a 150-pound person could eat 2.25 pounds of grouper a week without being at hypothetical risk of problems due to elevated mercury content. So, if a person swapped one serving of grouper for a serving of tilefish, he’d probably be fine.


For the most commonly consumed seafood, there’s really little reason to worry about mercury, and much more reason to worry that we’re missing out on the health benefits.


Americans annually consume 16 pounds of fish per capita. A 150-pound person would have to eat 105 pounds of tilapia a week before reaching a level of mercury intake associated with health problems. That same person would have to eat 7.5 pounds of salmon or 3 pounds of yellowfin tuna weekly to reach the same threshold. Other seafood, such as clams and shrimp, are so low in mercury as to not pose a realistic risk no matter how much you eat each week.


And that’s consumption every week, over a lifetime. 


Skeptical? The director of toxicology at the UC Irvine Medical Center told “Good Morning America,” “It is very easy to have mercury levels five to six times the upper limit of normal by eating lots of fish, and this does not result in any objective evidence of mercury poisoning.”


Meanwhile, a single 8-ounce yellowfin tuna steak provides 193 percent of the body’s daily need of selenium, 135 percent of the daily protein need and 126 percent of the daily need for omega-3s. The author of “The Ultimate Omega-3 Diet” says fatty fish like salmon and tuna are the best sources of these healthy fats.


We all know about the importance of getting enough omega-3s, which are linked to better heart health, brain function and moods, and can reduce joint inflammation from arthritis. We could be getting a lot more omega-3s, considering that Americans each eat just 16 pounds of fish per year. It’s hard to overstate the benefits.


Scientists reported in the respected medical journal “The Lancet” in 2007 that mothers who consumed the most fish had children who did the best on IQ tests, and vice versa. That’s why fish is known as “brain food.” They concluded, “Advice to limit seafood consumption could actually be detrimental.”


Interestingly, new research out of the University of Montreal adds to the discussion. Scientists report that broiling or frying tuna and other fish reduces the mercury exposure to people by 40 percent to 60 percent. Additionally, drinking coffee or tea while eating fish — cooked or raw — reduces exposure by 50 percent to 60 percent.


So here’s an idea: Offer some specials on fish, more explicitly highlight the benefits, and toss in a cup of joe. Just make sure to get the name right. 


Richard Berman is president of Berman & Co., a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm.