business news in context, analysis with attitude

Yesterday, we reported that California Attorney General Bill Lockyer has filed suit against five of the state’s grocery chains -- Kroger (which operates Ralphs), Albertsons, Safeway (which operates Vons), Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s -- for failing to properly warn consumers about the risk of mercury in fish.

The lawsuit seeks to force the grocers to warn customers that fresh tuna (not canned), swordfish and shark contain the metallic element linked to cancer and birth defects; California Proposition 65 requires businesses to provide "clear and reasonable" warnings before exposing people to known carcinogens and reproductive toxins. The suit seeks financial penalties as well as a ruling barring the stores from selling the fish until they post the required warnings.

When we saw the story on the wires, we had just finished eating a tuna steak…and while we knew nothing more than what the Attorney General told us, we admitted that the news made us a bit queasy about our meal.

During the day, we received several emails about the story, including this note from MNB user Alan Binder:

    “I enjoy purchasing and preparing fresh fish, so I'm taken aback by this news piece. Is there any evidence that people have suffered any of the frightening consequences of consuming fish purchased at these retailers? If not, then where are the data that prove the risk to human health? If so, then where are the lawsuits?

    “It's one thing to advise the consumer of a potential health risk, and quite another to stir imagination (‘this news made us just a bit queasy’) without placing this risk in its appropriate context.”

Excellent point. We weren’t trying to be alarmist…but Alan is right about our not giving this story the context it deserved.

So, we checked the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) website, and found both content and context:

    “Seafood can be an important part of a balanced diet for pregnant women. It is a good source of high quality protein and other nutrients and is low in fat.

    “However, some fish contain high levels of a form of mercury called methylmercury that can harm an unborn child's developing nervous system if eaten regularly. By being informed about methylmercury and knowing the kinds of fish that are safe to eat, you can prevent any harm to your unborn child and still enjoy the health benefits of eating seafood.”

Furthermore, we learned…

    “Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and it can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can get into surface water, accumulating in streams and oceans. Bacteria in the water cause chemical changes that transform mercury into methylmercury that can be toxic. Fish absorb methylmercury from water as they feed on aquatic organisms…

    “Nearly all fish contain trace amounts of methylmercury, which are not harmful to humans. However, long-lived, larger fish that feed on other fish accumulate the highest levels of methylmercury and pose the greatest risk to people who eat them regularly…

    “While it is true that the primary danger from methylmercury in fish is to the developing nervous system of the unborn child, it is prudent for nursing mothers and young children not to eat these fish as well.”

Content. And context. Fair enough.
KC's View:
Not being pregnant, nursing, or even, alas, young…we’ll feel less concerned in the future about consuming tuna, swordfish, shark.

There are two lessons to be learned here. First of all, context is always important…and we made a mistake by reacting glibly to a serious story. Second, it seems entirely possible that other consumers will make the same mistake we did. Which underscores the need for retailers to be up front with specific, factual information that is easily accessible to customers.