The other day, we were surprised to see a certain advertisement in Newsweek and the New Yorker. It was a bold yellow page that made a startling claim: Everything you’ve heard about mercury poisoning in fish is false. According to the ad, published by a mysterious organization identified only as, all the claims about the presence of mercury in fish are based on a single, flawed study, five decades old, of an island race that ate massive amounts of whale blubber.

As it turns out, the ad was bought by the Center for Consumer Freedom. A notorious Washington, D.C., lobbying group run by Rick Berman, the CCF represents the restaurant, alcohol, and hospitality industries.’s website is a net bulging with counter-information to fight environmentalist “fearmongering.” But it essentially comes down to an argument not about whether mercury is in fish—it is, after all—but what might constitute levels dangerous to humans. Berman and his cohorts would impeach the FDA and the EPA’s own standards on base doses of toxins in food. It is a matter of deep concern to them that scientists establish the minimum amount it takes to produce pathology in humans, and then divide that number by ten to account for differences in weight, metabolism, genetics, and so on. In other words, erring on the safe side.

With their self-interest on such unflattering display,’s funders remain mostly anonymous. Like proponents of, say, intelligent design or “natural” global warming theory, Berman’s experts engage in much criticism of existing science, without offering peer-reviewed science of their own. This is because what they are really arguing about are non-empirical first principles.

Incredibly, the Center for Consumer Freedom suggests that the Sierra Club, the Oceana institute, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the Ad Council, and about twenty other organizations—including, by extension, the FDA and the EPA—are hiding their true agenda, which is to attack the coal industry for mercury emissions. If that is true, it is hardly a secret, given the overwhelming evidence that mercury—and most other heavy metals—are demonstrably toxic to the human body. This is universally acknowledged. That mercury concentrates in fish, especially fatty predatorial fish like mackerel, swordfish, and some types of tuna is also settled truth. (As any holder of a Minnesota fishing license can tell you, non-commercial fish caught in our local lakes and rivers are poisonous enough that one should not eat them except ritually, at most once a week.)

Of course, what the CCF really wishes to do is sell more fish, and there they have an uphill battle. The good news is that American fish consumption has not changed much in the past ten years, since the rise of awareness about risks associated with red meat. Fish is recommended primarily for its omega-3 fatty acids, good for the brain and the heart. This is also conveniently available from organic dairy products, for example. The bad news is that Americans still eat less than half of the recommended quantities of seafood—half a pound per week of less-risky species such as salmon, pollack, shrimp, and catfish. Almost a third of the fish we do eat is in the form of canned tuna. Unfortunately, a recent study by the Mercury Policy Project suggested that one can out of twenty actually exceeds the “reference dose” for mercury.

Rick Berman and his employers believe that there is too much black-and-white thinking in the world—at least when it comes to their bottom line—and with that sentiment we can partly agree. But there is a time and a place for subtle thinking, and with the health of women and children at risk, this is not it. “Play Russian Roulette with your unborn child” would be an ad campaign with long odds of succeeding. And the idea that there may be an acceptable level of mercury to put in the mouths of infants and children must have been conceived by a person who does not have kids, and is not capable of empathizing with those who do.

We’ve grown used to this sort of anti-activism and counter-spin; the manipulation of facts in an effort to explode some sort of widespread science-based conspiracy. The proposition that our notions regarding safe levels of mercury in fish comes from one flawed, fifty-year-old study is, on the face of it, bunk. It ought to be an embarrassment to those who would take money to publish it.






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