Focus Pocus

Internal documents reveal that the FDA is failing in its public health obligation to warn pregnant women about mercury in tuna.

March 1, 2002

Focus Pocus: The FDA withholds information from pregnant women on mercury-contaminated fish, citing "focus groups" as justification

Agency documents showing FDA's failure to protect the public from the hazards of mercury-contaminated seafood

In closed door focus group sessions FDA warned pregnant women to limit their consumption of canned tuna and tuna steaks. But after meeting on three separate occasions with Chicken of the Sea, StarKist, Bumble Bee, the U.S. Tuna Foundation, and the National Food Processors Association, the agency's final mercury health advisory was stripped of any reference to tuna.

The National Academy of Sciences recommended against the use of the single negative study (the Seychelle Island study) in developing mercury safety standards (NAS recommendation). FDA ignored the NAS recommendation and instead met privately with only the Seychelle Island scientists as they crafted their new advisory to pregnant women (Seychelle-FDA meeting notes).

A scathing General Accounting Office study highlights FDA's complete failure to regulate mercury in seafood or require any testing whatsoever (GAO report selected pages).

Blowing away FDA's argument that women need no protection from mercury-contaminated seafood, a March 2001 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study shows that 10 percent of American women have enough mercury in their bodies to put their fetus at potential risk for adverse neurological development (within a factor of 10 of blood levels linked to measurable IQ and motor deficits). The National Academy of Sciences estimates that each year 60,000 babies may be exposed in the womb to unsafe levels of mercury from fish eaten by their mothers (NAS study).

The Environmental Protection Agency strongly disagrees with industry's assessment of the hazards of mercury and issued a point by point rebuttal (EPA rebuttal). The National Academy of Sciences unanimously supports EPA's mercury safety standard, which is eight times more stringent than FDA's non-enforceable mercury action level in seafood (NAS study).