Anti-seafood crusade may be off-base

Researchers are suggesting that the hue and cry against methyl mercury in seafood may be unwarranted
October 29, 2003

Researchers are suggesting that the hue and cry against methyl mercury in seafood may be unwarranted, reports the International Foundation for the Conservation of Natural Resources (IFCNR) Fisheries Committee.

A news item on the group's website draws attention to work published in Science in August, that shows that the mercury compound present in fresh fish is something other than highly toxic methyl mercury. If the researchers are right then an important NGO campaign against seafood will lose its credibility.

A lone study by San Francisco Physician Dr. Jane Hightower purported to link seafood consumption with human illnesses. Dr. Hightower warned that hers was a highly questionable study in terms of its scientific methodology. Nevertheless the NGOs and the Attorney General accepted the Hightower findings and began moving against Safeway, Kroger, Albertson’s, Trader Joe’s, Costco, Andronico’s Markets, and Whole Foods. Seventeen restaurant chains including Darden (Red Lobster, Oliver Garden, Smokey Bones, etc), Landry’s, McCormick & Schmick among others were sued by the Attorney General.

The problem, according to the study whose results were published in the August 29th edition of Science, is that the compound used as the model for mercury in seafood is methyl mercury chloride, a toxic substance easily passed through cell walls. Using X-ray absorption spectroscopy, Dr. Graham N. George, currently at Canada’s University of Saskatchewan, determined that the true mercury compound in seafood is methyl mercury cysteine. In this form, day-old zebra fish can tolerate 20 times the substance as it can methyl mercury chloride. If validated by further research, the dire low tolerance standards for mercury in seafood may well prove invalid and far too low.

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