California Grocers Warn of Mercury in Fish

SAN FRANCISCO, California, February 24, 2003 (ENS) - Five of California's largest grocery retailers have begun displaying signs cautioning consumers about the dangers of mercury in fish. The signs mark the first time that any retailers in California - and perhaps the nation - have issued such a strong warning about the health risks associated with a food product.

The warnings, posted by Safeway, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Kroger's and Albertson's, were prompted by a lawsuit filed last month by California Attorney General Bill Lockyer. The signs, hung near fish counters, advise women and children to not eat swordfish and shark, and to limit consumption of fresh tuna.

"It's the responsibility of the retailers, as well as state health agencies and the federal government, to let the public know about the impact of the seafood they're eating," said Doug Israel, an analyst with the Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN). "We hope this expands beyond California...they really need to step up their efforts to inform the public of the health hazards of mercury in fish."


Swordfish contain some of the highest levels of methylmercury found in fish. (Photo courtesy World Wide Fund for Nature)
The state lawsuit was spurred by undercover testing conducted by TIRN and the As You Sow Foundation, which found high levels of methylmercury in samples of fish from the five grocers.

California's attorney general's office argued that the grocers were violating Proposition 65, a ballot initiative enacted by California voters in 1986. The law requires businesses to provide "clear and reasonable" warnings before exposing people to known carcinogens and reproductive toxins.

"Generally, fish are an important source of protein," said Attorney General Bill Lockyer in filing the suit last earlier this month. "But consumers deserve to know when they are being exposed to chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm. Public health agencies have advised pregnant women not to eat swordfish and shark because those fish contain relatively high levels of mercury."

Methylmercury compounds have been listed under Proposition 65 as a chemical known to cause cancer since 1996, and methylmercury has been listed as a known reproductive toxin since 1987.

Mercury and mercury compounds have been listed as known reproductive toxins since 1990. Swordfish, ahi tuna, albacore tuna and shark contain mercury, methymercury and their compounds, all of which are ingested by people who eat the fish.

power plant

Coal burning power plants emit hundreds of pounds of mercury into the air each year (Photo by Carole Swinehart, courtesy Michigan Sea Extension)
The language now posted at California grocery stores states in part: "WARNING! Pregnant and nursing women, women who may become pregnant, and young children should not eat the following fish: SWORDFISH, SHARK, KING MACKEREL,TILE FISH. They should also limit their consumption of other fish, including fresh or frozen tuna."

The warnings, developed by the California attorney general's office in consultation with the Health Department and others, have yet to be finalized. They are based on an interim settlement announced February 14, and all the grocery chains cited in the lawsuit are still negotiating both the final wording of the warnings and potential fines or penalties that stores might face if they fail to post warnings.

The chains may already be liable for stiff penalties. The attorney general's suit sought civil penalties for violations of Proposition 65 and the state's Unfair Competition Act. Under both laws, each defendant is liable for civil penalties of up to $2,500 per day for each violation. The complaint alleges the defendants have failed to comply with Proposition 65 since as far back as 1988.

Environmental groups are concerned that the warnings now posted do not caution people about eating canned tuna. The interim warning suggested by the attorney general's office states that, "Mercury levels in canned tuna vary, but on average are lower than levels in many other fish. Chunk or chunk light tuna has less mercury then solid white or chunk white tuna."

Some groups have urged the attorney general to consider strengthening this language, given research findings that show risks to sensitive populations - such as pregnant women and young children - from low level exposure to mercury in more frequently consumed seafood.

"Canned tuna is the most consumed fish in the U.S., and in some cases the only fish pregnant women and kids eat," said Michael Bender, director of the Mercury Policy Project. "While mercury levels in canned tuna are generally lower than fresh tuna, 10 states now warn pregnant women and children to limit canned tuna consumption due to mercury exposure concerns."


Children who are exposed to mercury in utero may suffer damage to their brains and nervous systems, affecting language, attention and memory. (Photo by Ken Hammond, courtesy USDA)
Recent medical studies suggest that very low levels of mercury exposure may cause damage to unborn babies and young children. Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicates that one in 12 women of childbearing age has blood mercury levels above those considered safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which means that more than 300,000 children born in the U.S. each year are at risk from exposure to mercury.

Last July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's food safety committee recommended that pregnant women and children be warned to limit consumption of canned tuna due to mercury. However, the FDA has yet to act on these recommendations.

Last Monday, the British Food Standards Agency recommended that pregnant and nursing women not eat more than two cans of canned tuna a week.

While the grocers have agreed to post the warnings in their California stores, they challenge the basic argument that Proposition 65 applies to mercury in fish, stating that mercury is not necessarily a chemical produced by humans. Proposition 65 applies only to human-made toxins, and not to naturally occurring substances.

Attorney General Lockyer disagreed, noting that mercury is released into the air - and deposited into the water - by a wide variety of human industries.


Trash incinerators can emit mercury into the atmosphere. (Photo courtesy Lake Michigan Federation)
Mercury is released into the atmosphere from coal fired power plants, mining, waste disposal and certain industrial processes. Descending from polluted air into water, mercury works its way up the food chain and can cause brain and nerve damage resulting in impaired coordination, blurred vision, tremors, irritability and memory loss, behavioral problems and loss of intelligence, and cardiovascular disease.

Airborne mercury eventually falls into surface waters where it can accumulate in streams and oceans. Bacteria in the water transform mercury into methylmercury, and fish absorb this form of mercury when they eat aquatic organisms.

Earlier this month, environment ministers attending the Governing Council of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) meeting in Kenya agreed to begin a global crackdown on sources of mercury emissions. UNEP has been asked to assist all countries, particularly developing nations and countries with economies in transition such as the former states of the Soviet Union, in a wide ranging initiative to cut emissions of mercury from major sources such as coal fired power stations and incinerators.

For more information on the California case, visit the California Grocers Association at: