12/31/2005 09:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Fish Story Sparks FDA Inquiry

This is what "community journalism" is supposed to be about: investigating a problem and bringing it to the fore -- in a comprehensive, if somewhat intimidatingly large package. Kudos to the Chicago Tribune for The Mercury Menace, a multimedia, interactive series, which I'm sorry I missed the first time around. The Trib bought and had tested a wide range of fresh and processed fish from local (i.e. Chicago area) supermarkets, although it's a fair bet to figure that the results apply far beyond the Chicago market. How nasty is mercury? According to the National Institutes of Health, "exposure to excessive levels can permanently damage or fatally injure the brain and kidneys....

For fetuses, infants and children, the primary health effects of mercury are on neurological development. Even low levels of mercury exposure such as result from mother's consumption [of] methylmercury in dietary sources can adversely affect the brain and nervous system. Impacts on memory, attention, language and other skills have been found in children exposed to moderate levels in the womb.

Or as mystery-writer Ayelet Waldman is quoted in the first of the Trib's series, "You spend so much time as a parent making the world safe for your children.... We strap 75 different kinds of helmets on our kids, and here I was exposing [her child to a] neurotoxin in the food I was giving her because I thought it was healthier." Ayelet's 5-year-old daughter was diagnosed with mercury poisoning after regular consumption of tuna.

"The fact that we poisoned our air and our oceans to such an extent that we can't eat a damn tuna sandwich is just diabolical," says Ayelet.

While the Trib bought 18 samples each of eight kinds of fish, including two types of canned tuna -- all tested for mercury at Rutgers University -- the problem that attracted the FDA's attention was indeed the tuna. Although the original series didn't get much play outside the Trib's market, the followup certainly has, with the news that "the Food and Drug Administration will investigate whether tens of millions of cans of tuna sold each year contain potentially hazardous levels of mercury."

Responding to a Tribune series this month on mercury in fish, the FDA said it will review the possibility that there are elevated mercury levels in some cans of "light tuna," one of America's best-selling seafoods and a product the agency has recommended repeatedly as a low-mercury choice. The Tribune revealed that the U.S. tuna industry is using a potentially high-mercury tuna species, yellowfin, to make about 15 percent of the 1.2 billion cans of light tuna sold annually. Most of these cans are not labeled yellowfin, making it impossible for consumers to know which cans might be high in mercury.

Mercury levels in the canned tuna tested for the Trib varied widely, notes the series' story How Safe Is Tuna: "One can of StarKist had 10 times more mercury than another can of exactly the same kind of tuna."

Canned tuna is not the only problem -- and indeed, not all tuna is a problem. Fish has lots of benefits for discerning diners. But FDA regulators have been lax, the Trib's second story reports. "The U.S. government's only guide for consumers--a mercury warning posted on federal Web sites but not required in stores--is so flawed and misleading that people following the advice still could expose themselves to too much of the toxic metal."

So the investigation of canned tuna is at least a start.