by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Fish

Jun 15 2016

Seafood politics: Catfish? Really?

The Senate just voted to reverse a decision of Congress last year to remove catfish inspection from the FDA (which is usually in charge of regulating seafood) and give it to the USDA (which usually regulates meat and poultry).

Why did the 2008 and 2012 farm bills say that catfish inspection should be given to USDA?

It depends on whom you ask.

  • Defenders say it’s because USDA has the resources to protect us against unsafe Vietnamese catfish.
  • Critics said it’s to protect the Mississippi catfish industry against the food safety hazards of cheap imported catfish from Vietnam.

Indeed, the USDA inspection program is finding antibiotics and other unapproved carcinogens in catfish imported from Vietnam.

This issue, however, is a sticking point in US negotiations with Vietnam over the Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

Vietnam wants the USDA catfish inspection removed as an unfair barrier to trade.

As I wrote about this issue in 2013,

What is this about?  Not fish safety, really.  It’s about protecting catfish farmers in the South and setting up “more rigorous” safety criteria that will exclude competitive foreign catfish imports, especially from Vietnam.

Food retailers and retail trade associations are for reverting inspection to FDA. They say USDA’s catfish inspection program will take years to allow imports from Vietnam, thereby causing the cost of domestic catfish to rise.

But today, Politico Morning Agriculture reports that more than 100 House Republicans are urging repeal of the USDA’s catfish inspection program, pointing out that

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has 10 times stated that this program is “duplicative” and at “high risk” for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement…This is not a food safety issue.  USDA acknowledges that catfish, regardless of where it comes from, is considered a “low risk food.”

When I wrote this issue previously, I got comments that I needed to better appreciate the superiority of USDA’s import safety program.  As I said in response:

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.

My conclusion then and now:

If the political 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.

Documents

Feb 3 2016

Where are we on GMO politics: an update

State GMO labeling bills: While Congress dithers, states are getting busy.  The Sunlight Foundation’s SCOUT database on state GMO legislative initiatives is searchable.  Examples:

Detente between producers of GMO and labeling advocates: USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack held a meeting to attempt to forge some kind of accord between producers of GMO foods and advocates for GMO labels.  By all reports, it didn’t work.  Earlier, Vilsack tried to negotiate detente between GMO producers and producers of organic foods.  That didn’t work either.

GMO Salmon: The FDA says it will not allow imports of GMO salmon.  Since GMO salmon are produced in Canada and Panama, this action in effect bans GMO salmon from the US food supply.  The FDA is working on labeling guidelines and probably wants them out before allowing imports.

Monsanto’s conversation:  Monsanto’s interactive website invites you to be part of the conversation.  Aything you like.  Someone from Monsanto will respond.  This site is clearly keeping Monsanto’s PR staff on its toes. Here is just one example:

Dec 15 2015

The AP’s investigation of slavery in the Asian shrimp processing business

I’ve been asked to comment on the Associated Press investigation of slave-like working conditions in the Asian shrimp-processing industry.  It’s an ugly story, with seemingly everyone turning a blind eye to horrendous working conditions, child labor, and forced labor in order to keep the cost of shrimp—our number one seafood import—dirt cheap.

The AP quotes Susan Coppedge, the U.S. State Department’s new anti-trafficking ambassador.  Who knew that we even had an anti-trafficking ambassador?  But here’s the 2015 Trafficking report.

Ciooedge said

problems persist because brokers, boat captains and seafood firms aren’t held accountable and victims have no recourse.

“We have told Thailand to improve their anti-trafficking efforts, to increase their prosecutions, to provide services to victims,” she said. She added that American consumers “can speak through their wallets and tell companies: ‘We don’t want to buy things made with slavery.'”

The AP points out

Thailand is not the only source of slave-tainted seafood in the U.S., where nearly 90 percent of shrimp is imported.

The State Department’s annual anti-trafficking reports have tied such seafood to 55 countries on six continents, including major suppliers to the U.S. Earlier this year, the AP uncovered a slave island in Benjina, Indonesia, where hundreds of migrant fishermen were trafficked from Thailand and sometimes locked in a cage. Last month, food giant Nestle disclosed that its own Thai suppliers were abusing and enslaving workers and has vowed to force change.

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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

News

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.

Vox.com 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.

References

[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.

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