Mercury and the Retrograde FDA


Our national innocence regarding the safety of our food supply is fast eroding. From salmonella in tomatoes and peanut butter, to E. coli in spinach, how can we trust that the food we eat is safe and the government we pay taxes to is paying attention?

Two recent examples: Last fall, Mother Jones broke the story that canned tuna contains dangerous levels of mercury and that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) knew this when it left canned tuna off the seafood advisories it released in 2001. This week, two studies are out showing that nearly one-third of popular food and drink products listing High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) as the first or second ingredient contain mercury.

So much for that standby childhood lunch of a tuna sandwich and a soda – children are especially susceptible to mercury poisoning.

In the case of mercury contamination of HFCS, Grist reports that the FDA has known about it since 2005 and that the information was finally revealed when a researcher left the agency and published her work in one of the studies just released.

The Corn Refiners Association, conveniently located in Washington D.C. near Capitol Hill, released a statement about one of the studies saying, “This study appears to be based on outdated information of dubious significance.” And while it’s true that not all HFCS is produced using the chemical processes that cause mercury contamination, much of it still is.

In addition to its prior knowledge of the mercury contamination in HFCS, the FDA has done its part in helping HFCS become the ubiquitous ingredient it is. In 1983, the FDA formally listed high fructose corn syrup as safe for use in food. That decision was reaffirmed in 1996 and in 2008, when the agency classified HFCS as a “natural” product.

Despite the FDA’s friendly stance, HFCS had a publicity problem long before the sweetener was found to be contaminated with mercury. Nutritionists have linked the pervasive ingredient to obesity and other health problems.

To counter bad publicity, The Corn Refiners Association launched an approximately $30 million public relations and advertising campaign last summer to convince consumers that HFCS was safe and as natural as sugar. Full page newspaper ads and television commercials ran in the nation’s most prominent media outlets. The blogosphere, including Ecosalon, was not convinced.

In the case of canned tuna, the FDA released an updated advisory in 2003 listing chunk light canned tuna as a “low mercury” seafood. Though the agency didn’t require this information to appear in stores or on tuna cans, the mild warning caused a minor drop in sales. The industry responded by launching a major $25 million campaign touting tuna’s Omega-3 fatty acid content and other health benefits.

Faced with the knowledge that our government agencies are more interested in protecting industry profits than protecting our health, what are we to do?

Trust your instincts. If a cheap, highly subsidized and highly processed ingredient suddenly shows up in a lot of different foods, be suspicious.

If the government drafts an advisory warning the public about contamination of a commodity product (like tuna) but pointedly avoids warning the public about branded versions of that commodity (canned tuna) be suspicious. Tangled red tape is a warning sign.

Be wary of major advertising campaigns by industry groups. You can bet if X industry trade group is spending millions of dollars trying to convince you that a particular product or ingredient is good for you, it probably isn’t.

Speak up.
Tell the new administration in Washington that you want the government to put your health before the health of agribusiness balance sheets.

Image: tsuacctnt

Vanessa Barrington

Vanessa Barrington is a San Francisco based writer and communications consultant specializing in environmental, social, and political issues in the food system.