The Media Fell Hook, Line and Sinker for Industry 'Study' on Mercury in Seafood

Last week, a front-page headline in The Washington Post declared, "Mothers Again Urged to Eat Fish." The story reported on a new study from the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition that said pregnant and breast-feeding women should eat at least 12 ounces of fish and seafood per week -- contrary to federal advisories they should eat no more than 12 ounces a week to protect their babies' developing brains from mercury contamination.

The study was also covered prominently by NBC's "Today" show, Reuters, and dozens of other news outlets. Thankfully, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News Service bothered to ask the Journalism 101 questions that revealed:

  • The National Fisheries Institute, a front group for the seafood industry, paid $74,000 to cover travel expenses for the panel of researchers who produced the study -- some of whom also received "honorariums" for their participation - and for development of the study's website.

  • The vice chairman of the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition works for Burson Marsteller, a K Street lobbying and PR firm that also represents the National Fisheries Institute.

  • Many of the groups and agencies listed by the coalition as endorsing the study, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the March of Dimes and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, had no idea their names were being used, and in fact disagreed with the findings.

The stories in the Post and some other outlets read like a press release from the seafood industry -- which, as it turns out, they basically were. But the lack of critical reporting and basic fact-checking on this so-called study go beyond getting the story wrong -- they're downright dangerous for the health of American women and their babies. If mothers-to-be actually followed the advice of this study there would be an epidemic of mercury-damaged children in this country.

According to mercury experts at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), more than 1 in 6 children born in the United States are at risk for developmental disorders due to levels of mercury currently in maternal blood at current low levels of fish consumption. Increasing fish consumption in the manner recommended by the study would make matters much worse.

Mercury often concentrates in the umbilical cord blood of pregnant women, exposing their babies to this dangerous chemical. A free online guide to the fish pregnant women should avoid because of high mercury content, and which are safer, is available from the Environmental Working Group.

The seafood industry is trying to perpetuate the myth that there is a debate about the risks of mercury in fish, but there is no debate. The Food and Drug Administration's advice is clear: Pregnant women, and women who are thinking about becoming pregnant, should eat no more than 12 ounces of fish per week, no more than 6 ounces of albacore tuna, and no shark, tuna, mackerel, or swordfish at all. The seafood industry study actually recommends unlimited consumption of two fish on FDA's "do not eat" list.

The industry study claims eating fish is important to ensure that pregnant women get enough omega-3 fatty acids to promote their babies' brain development. The FDA and other experts say there's no confusion there either: Women should choose fish that are high in omega-3s but low in mercury, and look for other readily available sources of omega-3s.

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