by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Fish

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.

fish

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.

Nov 26 2013

The hooks and lines of the farm bill: Catfish inspection

As I am endlessly complaining, the farm bill is so detailed, complicated, and opaque that no rational person can possibly understand it, let alone a member of Congress.

To wit: catfish inspection.

As Gail Collins noted in her New York Times column a week or so ago, some members of the House want the USDA to inspect catfish, not the FDA (which ordinarily is responsible for fish inspection).  The current FDA inspection office costs $700,000 per year.  The USDA office, established by the 2008 farm bill, costs about $14 million a year, even though the USDA has not gotten around to issuing rules or actually inspecting catfish.

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.

The House version of the farm bill calls for repeal of USDA catfish inspection as a cost-cutting measure (the Senate farm bill does not mention catfish inspection, which means it leaves the USDA office in place).

Thad Cochran, Republican Senator from Mississippi, wants the House to delete the repeal provision, keep USDA in charge, and, thereby, protect the Mississippi catfish industry from foreign catfish imports.

Politico Pro quotes a member of Cochran’s staff:

Sen. Cochran has made it clear that his priority is to complete the new farm bill and get it signed into law. It sounds like there are some who have a deep under-appreciation of the diversity of Mississippi’s agriculture industry and the importance of this bill to the state’s farmers, foresters, hunters, and those in need of nutrition assistance.

The New York Times also points out that although some watchdog consumer groups support tougher safety standards for catfish (because of lower foreign standards for antibiotics and other chemicals), a Government Accountability Office report in May 2012 called imported catfish a low-risk food and said an inspection program at the Agriculture Department would “not enhance the safety of catfish.”

Now, says the Times in another article, a coalition of budget watchdog groups and a seafood trade group are lobbying to repeal the USDA’s inspection program.

All of this is in the House version of the farm bill, but unless you are a lobbyist for the catfish industry, you would never know it from the bill itself.  Here’s the relevant section from the  House bill.

catfish

As Gail Collins puts it,

See, this is what I like about the farm bill. The agriculture parts harken back to the golden era when Republicans and Democrats could work together to promote stupid ideas that benefited the special interests in their districts. And then go out and get inebriated in bipartisan drinking sessions. Now everybody is in the gym and then shutting down the government.

Apr 2 2013

Retailers and the GM salmon problem

A coalition of consumer, health, food safety and fishing groups behind the “Campaign for Genetically Engineered (GE)-Free Seafood” is recruiting grocery store chains to agree not to sell genetically engineered seafood even if the FDA allows it to be sold.  The campaign is aimed at the genetically modified AquaBounty salmon, which the FDA has had under consideration for ages, with no decision in sight.

The stores that have pledged not to sell GM salmon include Trader Joe’s (367 stores), Aldi (1,230 stores), Whole Foods (346 stores in U.S.), Marsh Supermarkets (93 stores in Indiana and Ohio), and PCC Natural Markets (9 stores in Washington State) and co-ops in Minnesota, New York, California, and Kansas.

This is a big deal because other GM seafood are in the research pipeline.  Large percentages of Americans say they oppose GM seafood and that the FDA should not allow it to be marketed.

And if the FDA does approve it, the agency is highly unlikely to require any special kind of labeling.

This reminds me of what happened to genetically modified tomato paste in the U.K.  Supermarket chains were selling the cans with labels clearly indicating that they were “produced from genetically modified tomatoes.”  The stores priced them favorably, and customers bought them — until Monsanto shipped unlabeled corn to Great Britain and caused a furor.

Retailers decided that they had plenty of tomato paste, didn’t need upset customers, and refused to continue selling the GM varieties.

Retailers call the shots in this situation.

I think much of the public distress over GM foods is because of lack of transparency.  Without labels, customers cannot exercise freedom of choice.

Just label it!

 

Jan 10 2013

Predictions for 2013 in food politics

For my monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle, I devote the one in January every year to predictions.  Last year I got them all pretty much on target.  It didn’t take much genius to figure out that election-year politics would bring things to a standstill.  This year’s column was much harder to do, not least because the FDA was releasing blocked initiatives right up to the printing deadline.

 Q: I just looked at your 2012 crystal ball column. Your predictions were spot on. But what about 2013? Any possibility for good news in food politics?

A: Food issues are invariably controversial and anyone could see that nothing would get done about them during an election year. With the election over, the big question is whether and when the stalled actions will be released.

The Food and Drug Administration has already unblocked one pending decision. In December, it released the draft environmental assessment on genetically modified salmon – dated May 4, 2012. Here comes my first prediction:

The FDA will approve production of genetically modified salmon: Because these salmon are raised in Canada and Panama with safeguards against escape, the FDA finds they have no environmental impact on the United States. The decision is now open for public comment. Unless responses force the FDA to seek further delays, expect to see genetically modified salmon in production by the end of the year.

Pressures to label genetically modified foods will increase: If approval of the genetically modified salmon does nothing else, it will intensify efforts to push states and the FDA to require GM labeling.

Whatever Congress does with the farm bill will reflect no fundamental change in policy: Unwilling to stand up to Southern farm lobbies, Congress extended the worst parts of the 2008 farm bill until September. Don’t count on this Congress to do what’s most needed in 2013: restructure agricultural policy to promote health and sustainability.

The FDA will start the formal rule-making process for more effective food safety regulations: President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act in January 2011. Two years later, despite the FDA’s best efforts, its regulations – held up by the White House – have just been released for public comment. Lives are at stake on this one.

The FDA will issue rules for menu labels: The Affordable Care Act of 2010 required calorie information to be posted by fast-food and chain restaurants and vending machines. The FDA’s draft applied to foods served by movie theaters, lunch wagons, bowling alleys, trains and airlines, but lobbying led the FDA to propose rules that no longer covered those venues. Will its final rules at least apply to movie theaters? Fingers crossed.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will delay issuing nutrition standards for competitive foods: When the USDA issued nutrition standards for school meals in January 2012, the rules elicited unexpected levels of opposition. Congress intervened and forced the tomato sauce on pizza to count as a vegetable serving. The USDA, reeling, agreed to give schools greater flexibility. Still to come are nutrition standards for snacks and sodas sold in competition with school meals. Unhappy prediction: an uproar from food companies defending their “right” to sell junk foods to kids in schools and more congressional micromanagement.

The FDA will delay revising food labels: Late in 2009, the FDA began research on the understanding of food labels and listed more relevant labels as a goal in its strategic plan for 2012-16. Although the Institute of Medicine produced two reports on how to deal with front-of-package labeling and advised the FDA to allow only four items – calories, saturated and trans fat, sodium and sugars – in such labels, food companies jumped the gun. They started using Facts Up Front labels that include “good” nutrients as well as “bad.”

Will the FDA insist on labels that actually help consumers make better choices? Will it require added sugars to be listed, define “natural” or clarify rules for whole-grain claims? I’m not holding my breath.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program participation will increase, but so will pressure to cut benefits: Demands on Snap – food stamps – reached record levels in 2012 and show no sign of decline. Antihunger advocates will be working hard to retain the program’s benefits, while antiobesity advocates work to transform the benefits to promote purchases of healthier foods. My dream: The groups will join forces to do both.

Sugar-sweetened beverages will continue to be the flash point for efforts to counter childhood obesity: The defeat of soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte (Los Angeles County) will inspire other communities to try their own versions of soda tax and size-cap initiatives. As research increasingly links sugary drinks to poor diets and health, soda companies will find it difficult to oppose such initiatives.

Grassroots efforts will have greater impact: Because so little progress can be expected from government these days, I’m predicting bigger and noisier grassroots efforts to create systems of food production and consumption that are healthier for people and the planet. Much work needs to be done. This is the year to do it.

And a personal note: In 2013, I’m looking forward to publication of the 10th anniversary edition of “Food Politics” and, in September, my new editorial cartoon book with Rodale Press: “Eat, Drink, Vote: An Illustrated Guide to Food Politics.”

Jan 8 2013

A Man. A Plan. Panamá!

On vacation in Panamá, I found few visible signs of food politics.

I had asked to visit the mountain site where genetically modified salmon are being raised in the mountains (see previous post).  Not a chance.

This made me even more curious.  I conducted an informal survey of every educated Panamanian I met:

  • Are you aware that genetically modified salmon are being raised in your country?
  • Do you care?

The answers: No and No.

I found only two exceptions: (1) a government official impressed by what he told me were five levels of security to make sure the fish don’t escape, and (2) an associate of the soon-to-open biodiversity museum (designed by Frank Gehry) who hoped that the museum could be a forum for such issues.

Both confirmed that the newspapers said nothing about GM salmon and that few people knew about them.

A chef’s reaction: Panamanian salmon!  He couldn’t wait to get some.

But I did see this Christmas display along the Avenida Balboa.

The Coca-Cola banner also says Alcaldía de Panamá: trabajando para ti (Mayor of Panamá City: working for you).

Happy new year!  Happy to be back.

Dec 26 2012

The hazards of GM foods: patent protection and international relations

Writing in Slate, Fred Kaufman takes a fresh look at the controversies over genetically modified (GM) foods.  Forget the other issues, he says.   Pay attention to patents:

GM foods’ effect on health is uncertain, but their effect on farmers, scientists, and the marketplace is clear. Some GM foods may be healthy, others not; every genetic modification is different. But every GM food becomes dangerous—not to health, but to society—when it can be patented. Right now, the driving force behind the development of new genetic crop modifications is the fact that they possess the potential to be enormously profitable….

That brings me to the GM salmon, in particular AquAdvantage brand engineered to grow faster and bigger than wild salmon.

Last Friday (always a good time to release something controversial), the FDA let loose its draft environmental assessment on the GM salmon.  The draft finding of “no effect” is now open for comment.

I find the draft statement remarkable for two reasons.

  • It is dated May 4, 2012, suggesting that it was considered too political to release before the election.
  • It applies only to production of GM salmon outside the United States.

The FDA had already ruled that the salmon are safe to eat:

With respect to food safety, FDA has concluded that food from AquAdvantage Salmon is as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon, and that there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from consumption of food from triploid AquAdvantage Salmon. Further, FDA has concluded that no significant food safety hazards or risks have been identified with respect to the phenotype of the AquAdvantage Salmon.

With respect to environmental impact, the FDA says:

FDA preliminarily concludes that the development, production, and grow-out of AquAdvantage Salmon under the conditions proposed in the materials submitted by the sponsor in support of an NADA [New Animal Drug Application], and as described in this draft EA [Environmental Assessment], will not result in significant effects on the quality of the human environment in the United States.

AquAdvantage is not intended to be grown in the United States.  It is being raised on Prince Edward Island in Canada and in Panama and will be processed in Panama.

Under the proposed action, AquAdvantage Salmon would not be produced or grown in the United States, or in net pens or cages, and no live fish would be imported for processing.

…As the proposed action would only allow production and grow-out of AquAdvantage Salmon at facilities outside of the United States, the areas of the local surrounding environments that are most likely to be affected by the action lie largely within the sovereign authority of other countries (i.e., Canada and Panama).

Because NEPA [the National Environmental Policy Act] does not require an analysis of environmental effects in foreign sovereign countries, effects on the local environments of Canada and Panama have not been considered and evaluated in this draft EA except insofar as it was necessary to do so in order to determine whether there would be significant effects on the environment of the United States….

In addition, social, economic and cultural effects of the proposed action on the United States have not been analyzed and evaluated because the analysis in this draft EA preliminarily indicates that the proposed action will not significantly affect the physical environment of the United States.

If I am getting this right, the FDA is saying that since the salmon is being raised elsewhere, it’s OK to produce it.

This report is generally interpreted as opening the door to marketing of GM salmon within the United States, and soon.

Will it be labeled as such?  I suppose that too is up to Canada and Panama.

Revisit patent protection anyone?

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