Canned Tuna Must Warn of Unhealthy Mercury Levels, Lockyer Lawsuit States
Attorney General Bill Lockyer (D) on Monday filed suit in San Francisco Superior Court against the nation's three largest tuna canners for allegedly failing to comply with Proposition 65, a state law requiring businesses to provide a "clear and reasonable" warning on any product that could cause reproductive harm or cancer, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. The suit alleges that albacore and chunk light tuna canned by San Francisco-based Starkist and Bumble Bee Seafoods and Chicken of the Sea -- both of which are based in San Diego -- may exceed safe levels of methylmercury for fetuses and young children. Methylmercury since 1996 has been listed as a chemical known to cause cancer, according to Lockyer (Kinsman, San Diego Union-Tribune, 6/22). The suit aims to prevent the companies from selling canned tuna in the state without a warning either on the can or on signs posted in grocery store aisles. The suit also seeks penalties for violations of the state's Unfair Competition Law. Under both laws, the companies could be liable for civil penalties of as much as $2,500 per day for each violation since 2000. The tuna industry is expected to cite Proposition 65 limitations that the regulation only applies to man-made substances and that the mercury contained in fish is derived from underwater volcanic activity (Kay, San Francisco Chronicle, 6/22).
According to state officials, prenatal and infant exposure to mercury can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness and developmental and learning disabilities, the Union-Tribune reports (San Diego Union Tribune, 6/22). In adults, mercury is linked to tremors and memory loss (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/22). The Environmental Protection Agency cites the safe level for mercury in a pregnant woman's bloodstream to be about 3.5 parts per billion, according to the Los Angeles Times. Though he did not cite specific figures, Lockyer in the suit said that tests conducted by the attorney general's office show that mercury levels in canned albacore and light tuna exceed levels that require a warning and that albacore contains "significantly" higher levels than light tuna (Malnic, Los Angeles Times, 6/22).
EPA and FDA in March issued an updated mercury advisory that said women who are nursing can safely eat as much as 12 ounces of shellfish and fish -- including canned light tuna -- per week, and as much as six ounces of albacore tuna per week (Reuters/Orange County Register, 6/22). The U.S. Tuna Foundation followed the announcement with a public education campaign that said tuna is an "important part of a healthy diet," the Union-Tribune reports (San Diego Union-Tribune, 6/22). The announcement came after EPA researchers in February determined that more than 15% of children born each year may have been exposed as fetuses to mercury levels that could affect their development (San Francisco Chronicle, 6/22).
Lockyer said, "This is a critical public health issue. We're not trying to eliminate tuna from people's diets. We're trying to enforce the law and protect the health and safety of California women and children" (Los Angeles Times, 6/22). According to the Union-Tribune, U.S. Tuna Foundation Executive Director David Burney said that the state is infringing on FDA's authority to regulate foods. He said, "We're disappointed the state felt compelled to file the suit. All fish have trace amounts of methylmercury -- it's a naturally occurring phenomenon." He added, "But we believe tuna is a healthy part of people's diet, and we're not about to put a skull and crossbones on our cans." Bumble Bee President Chris Lischewski said that there has never been a case of seafood-related methylmercury poisoning in the United States and that the suit could deter people from eating tuna (San Diego Union Tribune, 6/22).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.