Canned Tuna
September 20, 2012

Consumer Groups Fight Against Tuna In School Lunches

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

A band of consumer groups recently joined together to urge the USDA to remove tuna from school lunch menus following a study that found that canned tuna in lunchrooms had high levels of mercury.

In an article by WebMD, the non-profit Mercury Policy Project (MPP) recommended that children “should never eat albacore tuna,” young children should only eat tuna once a month, and older kids can eat tuna twice a month.

Due to industrial pollution in waterways, fish are infected with mercury and bacteria changes the mercury into methylmercury; methylmercury is a more dangerous and biologically active version of the chemical. School lunch programs are also recommended to serve tuna twice a month and work on eventually phasing out this food option, changing to seafood options that have less mercury like salmon or shrimp.

The study included analysis of foil pouches of tuna from 11 states and 59 samples of canned tuna. They found that, even though the level of mercury met the results of previous studies conducted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the levels of average methylmercury varied widely in the cans and pouches. Light tuna showed an average of methylmercury from 0.02 to 0.64 parts per million, while albacore tuna demonstrated an average between 0.19 and 1.27 parts per million. The study was funded by groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

"Today we unfortunately have to bring consumers a warning about tuna. Despite its popularity, it should be a rare meal for children," commented Sarah Klein, representative of consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest, at a news teleconference that was cited by WebMD.

Researchers of the coalition report also noted that children in the U.S. are exposed to mercury through canned tuna.

"Don't scare people away from giving kids tuna," remarked Edward Groth, author of the report, during the news conference. "It is not a question of tuna or no tuna, it is how much tuna. There are a lot of benefits from tuna, and the benefit is great when the intake is once or twice a month."

Industry groups have stated that the MPP report mostly looked at the risks of eating tuna, rather than the benefits.

"The report has no mention of omega-3 fatty acids, no mention of lean protein, and no mention of selenium, which has a positive interactive effect with mercury," dietitian Jennifer McGuire, RD, a representative of the Tuna Council of the National Fisheries Institute, told WebMD. "They just pulled out the trace amounts of mercury in isolation and tried to make a fuss about it. There is really nothing new here to be concerned about."

National organizations supporting seafood also cited federal dietary guidelines that encouraged individuals in the U.S. to consume seafood twice a week. Seafood is seen as a source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which boosts the body´s metabolism. They encouraged parents to keep track of the amount of tuna young children consume, so that kids don´t overeat the fish.

"To suggest we're eating too much is almost comical," commented Gavin Gibbons, a representative of seafood industry group National Fisheries Institute, in the USA Today article.

According to USA Today, in 2004, the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a recommendation that pregnant females should not eat more than 10 ounces of fish and shellfish while children should eat “small portions” of seafood. The recommendation was created out of concern that high consumption of fish and shellfish would affect the brains of fetuses and children.

"Our research suggests that this limit should be decreased by 50%," remarked Philippe Grandjean, a Harvard University professor of environmental studies who looks at mercury in seafood, in the USA Today article. "If anything, [the Mercury Project] report underestimates the risks associated with regular tuna intake."