by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Fish

Nov 20 2015

FDA approves genetically modified salmon, and it won’t be labeled

The FDA has just approved AquAdvantage’s genetically engineered (GMO) Atlantic salmon.  The salmon will not have to be labeled as GMO.

The FDA has spent at least four years coming to this decision.  In previous posts, I’ve discussed.

What more to say?  Only that federal agencies are tone deaf about the GMO issue.

The FDA thinks that just because it judges the salmon safe to it, that automatically makes it acceptable to the public.

But as anyone who knows anything about risk communication can tell you, even if the salmon is safe to eat, the public may not want it for a host of other reasons.

The decision not to label the salmon, is also tone deaf.  The FDA bases its decision on its decision that genetic modification is not material, meaning that the GMO fish has a similar nutrient composition to wild or other farm-raised salmon.

But the FDA requires labeling of plenty of other non-material processes: made from concentrate, previously frozen, and irradiated, for example.

As far as I can tell, the FDA has learned nothing about risk communication in the 20 years since it approved GMO foods for production and consumption.  The protests are already underway, some from members of Congress.

Politico Pro Agriculture quotes Senator Lisa Murkowski (Dem-AK):

“We have made no bones about the fact that this is wrong, not only for Alaska and our wild salmon stocks…but around the country,” she said, adding: “At a bare minimum people around this country need to know what they are serving their families when it comes to seafood.”

Murkowski said the draft labeling guidance released today fell short of what consumers need and plans to “continue the fight” against the fish.

This will be interesting to watch.

The FDA documents


Aug 5 2015

Obama’s Clean Power Plan will reduce methylmercury in seafood. Yes!

Earlier this week, President Obama announced a plan to reduce toxic emissions from coal-burning power plants.  The purpose of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan  is to reduce greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change.

But from the standpoint of food politics, the new rules do something really important.  They will force coal-burning power plants to further reduce emissions of mercury.

In 2005, the EPA promulgated a rule to control mercury emissions from fossil fuel-fired power plants under section 111(d): the Clean Air Mercury Rule (CAMR). The EPA established a nationwide cap-and-trade program that took effect in two phases: In 2010, the cap was set at 38 tons per year, and in 2018, the cap was lowered to 15 tons per year. The EPA expected, on the basis of modeling, that sources would achieve the second phase, 15-ton per year cap cost-effectively by choosing among a set of measures that included shifting generation to lower-emitting units.

Mercury from coal-burning power plants is the largest human-induced source of methymercury in the fish food chain, accounting for 40% of the amount that gets into oceans (most of the rest comes from underseas volcanos).  Mercury is converted to toxic methylmercury in seawater, and the toxin moves up the fish food chain as bigger fish eat smaller fish.  Methylmercury does very bad things to the nervous system of the growing fetus (recall the mass poisonings in Minamata, Japan in the 1950s and the shocking photos of the victims). 

Fish advisories

Large, predatory fish have the most methymercury and should not be eaten in large amounts, or at all by pregnant women.

Fish advisories expect pregnant women to know the kinds of fish they can and cannot eat, and how much.  This is not easy.

Wouldn’t it be better to prevent mercury from getting into seawater in the first place?

I like to use eliminating methylmercury as an example of why public health (“upstream”) approaches work better than personal responsibility (“downstream”) approaches.

An exceptionally clear example is how to avoid toxic levels of methylmercury in fish.   We can teach pregnant women to recognize which fish are high in methylmercury and hope this works well enough so they will avoid buying such fish (personal responsibility) or we could–as a society–require coal-burning power plants to scrub their emissions so mercury doesn’t get into ocean or lake waters in the first place (public health).

That’s what this rule does.

For explanations of how the Clean Power Plan will work, see the Union of Concerned Scientists’ review. explains:

The basics of the Clean Power Plan are fairly simple. The EPA is giving each state an individualized goal for reducing emissions from their electric power plants. States can then decide for themselves how to get there…. Power plant emissions have already dropped 15 percent between 2005 and 2013, thanks to a brutal recession, cheap natural gas pushing out coal, the rise of wind power, and improved efficiency. So with this new plan, EPA is expecting a further 20 percent cut in power-plant emissions from 2013 levels by 2030.

For what Obama stands to gain from this rule, see the New York Times.

But hold the celebration.  Politico Pro Energy reports that Republicans in Congress view the rule as a key component of the administration’s “war on coal” and will try to block it or sue to stop it.   The Supreme Court says that the EPA has the authority to issue this rule, but “Challengers are expected to argue that the rule is invalid because it exceeds EPA’s authority, contradicts a Clean Air Act provision meant to avoid duplicative rules, and violates the 5th and 10th Amendments to the Constitution.”   And, of course, a post-Obama president could undo the whole thing, as it is an executive branch action, not a law passed by Congress.

Yesterday’s New York Times had a front-page story on how coal lobbyists and corporate lawyers started organizing more than a year ago to fight this plan.

An important ally in the effort was the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative advocacy group that pushes policy through state legislatures. Typically, the council’s committees of corporate members will craft a model bill designed to push through policies it supports, such as rolling back environmental regulations.

The Clean Power Plan deserves massive support.

This may be a climate-change plan, but it is also a critically important public health measure.

Anyone who likes eating fish should do everything possible to support this measure.

Nov 13 2014

White House delays even more food rules

This morning’s Politico Pro Morning Agriculture says that FDA menu labeling (see Monday’s Post) is not the only food rule being held up by the White House.

The issue: The White House is supposed to sign off or reply within 90 days, or formally request an extension.  That’s not happening with menu calorie labeling or four others:

  • The Common or Usual Name for Raw Meat and Poultry rule: this refers to what you can call meat and poultry with added water, salt or other ingredients.  The White House has been sitting on rule for review since April 30.   Chicken producers love it.  Some meat producers don’t.  Here’s the initial proposal.  It’s not clear whether or how it’s been altered.
  • Child Nutrition Program Integrity and Child and Adult Care Food Program proposals: these rules, also sent in April, deal with USDA’s implementation of the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act. The integrity rule deals with mismanagement.  The other one requires USDA to update the meals to comply with dietary guidelines every 10 years.
  •  USDA’s catfish inspection rule: Sent to the White House on May 30, this would implement a section of the 2014 farm bill that puts USDA, not FDA, in charge of catfish inspections (see previous post on this).
  • EPA’s Renewable Fuel Standard for 2014: This was sent August 22.  The White House has not extended the review period.  f the administration does take more time to officially complete its review, it could push the release of the rule governing how much ethanol needs to be mixed into gasoline for 2014 into 2015.

What’s going on?  Politics, of course.  But I can only speculate on what they might be.

Aug 21 2014

Mercury in fish–again. Watch out for tuna.

In June I wrote about the FDA’s advice to pregnant women to avoid eating fish high in methylmercury.  The advisory said to avoid the four fish highest in methylmercury:  shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish.

I was surprised that the advisory didn’t warn about the high mercury levels in albacore tuna, and I was skeptical about the FDA’s  insistence that pregnant women must eat fish.

Now Consumer Reports advises pregnant women not to eat tuna at all.

Consumer Reports:

So what’s going on here?

In my book, What to Eat, I included a chapter on this very topic: “The Methylmercury Dilemma.”  Here’s a quote:

Albacore tuna clearly belonged on the list of fish to avoid, but advice to restrict its consumption would surely affect the livelihoods of people who fish for, can, and sell tuna.   Because hardly anyone knows the difference between one kind of tuna and another, fish companies worried that consumers would interpret advice to avoid albacore tuna as advice to avoid all tuna.  Industry lobbyists urged the FDA to keep albacore tuna off the methylmercury advisory.   Somehow, albacore tuna got left off.

That was in 2006.   Consumer Reports tells us that pretty much all tuna is too high in methylmercury to be consumed by pregnant women.  So this comment still seems relevant, no?

Evidence: Here’s the response from the National Fisheries Institute:  “Consumer Reports has long history of intentionally mischaracterizing tuna.”

Jun 30 2014

The FDA’s fish advisory for pregnant women: some additional thoughts

When the FDA advisory came out a week or so ago, I started getting questions about whether it meant that women must eat fish during pregnancy and, if so, how much.

As I said in my previous post on the topic, if you like fish, of course eat it, otherwise I can’t think of any compelling reason why anyone has to eat fish.

I view the data on the dilemma caused by omega-3 fatty acids in fish (good) versus the content of methylmercury (bad) as still rather uncertain.  Dr. Malden Nesheim and I discussed this point in an editorial we wrote for the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition [reference 1 below].

Here’s what the FDA advisory says:

Eat 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of fish each week from choices that are lower in mercury. The nutritional value of fish is important during growth and development before birth, in early infancy for breastfed infants, and in childhood… Fish contains important nutrients for developing fetuses, infants who are breastfed, and young children. Fish provides health benefits for the general public. Many people do not currently eat the recommended amount of fish.

This is a prescriptive statement telling pregnant women that they should eat fish.

I would argue that the data on which FDA based this prescription are limited, especially because the results of its scientific assessment are based mostly on theoretical models rather than empirical studies.

Here’s what makes me think some skepticism is warranted:

  1. The effects of even low-level methylmercury exposure may be greater than discussed in the assessment [see reference 2], as the latest analysis from the Environmental Working Group explains.
  2. The increase in young children’s IQ associated with fish-eating during pregnancy is low—-0.7 to a maximum of 3 IQ points.

As the FDA’s assessment report says:

On a population basis, average neurodevelopment in this country is estimated to benefit by nearly 0.7 of an IQ point (95% C.I. of 0.39 – 1.37 IQ points) from maternal consumption of commercial fish. For comparison purposes, the average population-level benefit for early age verbal development is equivalent in size to 1.02 of an IQ point (95% C.I. of 0.44 – 2.01 IQ size equivalence). For a sensitive endpoint as estimated by tests of later age verbal development, the average population-level benefit from fish consumption is estimated to be 1.41 verbal IQ points (0.91, 2.00). The assessment also estimates that a mean maximum improvement of about three IQ points is possible from fish consumption, depending on the types and amounts of fish consumed.

How significant is this?  And does the small benefit in childhood persist into adolescence or adulthood?

  1. The economic question.  Fish are expensive.
  2. The ecological questions.  Advice to increase fish consumption comes up against environmental realities—-overfishing, fish farming—-that make the recommendation impossibly unsustainable [reference 3].
  • The levels of long-chain omega-3s in farmed fish depend on feeding them wild fish, an ecological problem on its own.
  • Guidance about fish can’t be just nutritional; it has to take the economic and ecological impact of fish choices into consideration [reference 4].
  • Current per capita fish consumption is about half the FDA recommended level, and half of that is shrimp.  Fortunately, shrimp don’t have much mercury (although the ones from Asia may have other contaminants), but they also don’t have much omega-3).

All of this suggests grounds for skepticism.  I think a better recommendation would leave more wiggle room to account for uncertainties.  Here’s how I would edit the FDA’s statement:

Pregnant women may eat up to 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of fish each week from choices that are lower in mercury.  Fish are useful sources of nutrients that may have value for growth and development before birth, in early infancy for breastfed infants, and in childhood, and may provide health benefits for the general public.  Other food sources also provide such benefits.


[1] Nesheim MC, Nestle M. Advice for fish consumption: challenging dilemmas. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2014;99:973-974.

[2] Karagas MR, Choi AL, Oken E, Horvat M, Schoeny R, Kamai E, Cowell W, Grandjean P, Korrick S. Evidence on the human health effects of low-level methymercury  exposure. Environ Health Perspect. 2012; 120:799-806.

[3] Jenkins D, Sievenpiper JL, Pauli D, Sumaila UR, Kendall CWC  Are dietary recommendations for use of fish oils sustainable? Canadian Medical Association Journal 2009;180: 633-637.

[4] Oken E, Choi AL Karagas MR, Marien K, Rheinberger CM, Schoeny R, Sunderland E, Korrick S  Which fish should I eat? Perspectives influencing fish consumption choices. Environmental Health Perspectives 2012;120:790-798.

Jun 17 2014

Fish politics: The FDA’s updated policy on eating fish while pregnant

Eating fish presents difficult dilemmas (I evaluate them in five chapters of What to Eat).

This one is about asking pregnant women to weigh the benefits of fish-eating against the hazards of their toxic chemical contaminants to the developing fetus.

The Dietary Guidelines tell pregnant women to eat 2-to-3 servings of low-mercury fish per week (actually, it’s methylmercury that is of concern, but the FDA calls it mercury and I will too).

But to do that, pregnant women have to:

  • Know which fish are low in mercury
  • Recognize these fish at the supermarket, even if they are mislabeled (which they sometimes are).

Only a few fish, all large predators, are high in mercury.  The FDA advisory says these are:

  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • King Mackerel
  • Tilefish

What?  This list leaves off the fifth large predator: Albacore (white) tuna.  This tuna has about half the mercury as the other four, but still much more than other kinds of fish.

The figure below comes from the Institute of Medicine’s fish report.  It shows that fish highest in omega-3 fatty acids, the ones that are supposed to promote neurological development in the fetus and cognitive development in infants, are also highest in mercury.


White tuna is the line toward the bottom.  The ones in the blue boxes are all much lower in omega-3s and in mercury except for farmed Atlantic salmon (high in omega-3s, very low in mercury).

What’s going on here?

  • Tuna producers know you can’t tell the difference between white and other kinds of tuna and don’t want you to stop eating tuna during pregnancy.
  • The data on the importance of eating fish to children’s cognitive development are questionable (in my opinion).  The studies are short term and it’s difficult to know whether the small gains in early cognitive development that have been reported make any difference a few months later.
  • The FDA must be under intense pressure to promote fish consumption.

I think it is absurd to require pregnant women to know which fish to avoid.  In supermarkets, fish can look pretty much alike and you cannot count on fish sellers to know the differences.

Other dilemmas:

  • Even smaller fish have PCBs, another toxin best avoided by pregnant women, if not everyone.
  • The world’s seafood supply is falling rapidly as a result of overfishing.
  • Half of the mercury in seafood derives from emissions from coal-burning power plants.  The best way to reduce mercury in fish is to clean up the emissions from those plants, but plant owners want to avoid the expense.

That’s fish politics, for you.

The FDA documents:

Apr 30 2014

The never-ending fish dilemmas

Mal Nesheim and I have an editorial in a recent issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Advice for fish consumption: challenging dilemmas.”

We commented on a research article evaluating blood mercury levels in adults eating seafood.

In it, we point out that

the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise Americans to consume 8 ounces (227 g) of seafood per week to reach an average intake of 250 mg/d of the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.

This recommendation represents a substantial increase over current consumption amounts of ∼3.5 oz/wk. It is based on “moderate, consistent evidence” that the health benefits of increased seafood consumption outweigh the risks associated with methylmercury, a toxic contaminant of large predatory food fish (tilefish, shark, swordfish, king mackerel) and, to a lesser extent, albacore (white) tuna.

To avoid this toxin, the guidelines advise eating seafood typically found to be low in methylmercury, such as salmon, anchovies, sardines, and trout.

Such advice, however, leads to at least 3 dilemmas. Eating more fish might raise methylmercury intake above safe amounts. Pressures to consume more fish might place impossible demands on an already threatened seafood supply. And the obvious solution—fish farming—raises concerns about what farmed fish are fed and how farmed fish affects the environment.

We urge the 2015 Dietary Guidelines committee to take all this into consideration when making recommendations about fish consumption: “We hope that its advice for seafood consumption will help a confused public resolve some of these dilemmas and make wise seafood choices.”

Wise seafood choices may be an oxymoron, alas.

Nov 27 2013

More on catfish inspection (absurdly enough)

My post yesterday about the politics of catfish inspection inspired comments that I need to better appreciate the superiority of USDA’s import safety program, which requires this checklist for steps that must be taken by importers of meat, poultry, or processed egg products:

  1. Products must originate from certified countries and establishments eligible to export to the United States.
  2. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Services (APHIS) restricts some products from entering the United States because of animal disease conditions in the country of origin (see APHIS Veterinary Services, National Center for Import and Export).
  3. Countries and establishments become eligible following an equivalence determination process by FSIS.
  4. Imported products must meet the same labeling requirements as domestically-produced products.
  5. After filing the necessary forms for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and meeting animal disease requirements of APHIS, all imported meat, poultry and processed egg products must be presented for inspection by FSIS at an official import establishment.

It’s not surprising if USDA’s import safety system is better than the FDA’s.  USDA gets $14 million a year to run its currently non-operating catfish inspection system.  The FDA gets $700,000 and, according to the Government Accountability Office, has managed pretty well with it (see yesterday’s post).

Definition is also an issue.  USDA rules apply to all catfish species.  But to protect American catfish producers, the FDA defined catfish as the North American species.  But Vietnam produces different species, which makes catfish inspection even weirder.

Although FDA has had some problems with seafood inspection, it is generally responsible for dealing with fish safety and has had seafood HACCP requirements in place since the mid-1990s.  The USDA does not have authority over fish; it is responsible for the safety of meat and poultry.

Why should catfish be an exception?

Why are we even talking about which agency should be in charge of inspecting catfish?

If the politic fuss over catfish inspection reveals anything, it is why we so badly need a single food safety agency—one that combines and integrates the food safety functions of USDA and FDA—to ensure the safety of the American food supply.

Addition, November 28: Members of Congress urge repeal of the USDA’s catfish inspection program.

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