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Questioning Sushi Safety

Posted on Jan 23, 2008

The FDA and EPA already warn against pregnant women and children eating canned tuna because of high mercury levels, but The New York Times has discovered even more mercury in a random selection of fresh sushi tuna. And it’s not just those swanky city folk who are at risk. According to one marine scientist: “Mercury levels in bluefin [tuna] are likely to be very high regardless of location [of purchase].”

New York Times:

Recent laboratory tests found so much mercury in tuna sushi from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants that at most of them, a regular diet of six pieces a week would exceed the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sushi from 5 of the 20 places had mercury levels so high that the Food and Drug Administration could take legal action to remove the fish from the market. The sushi was bought by The New York Times in October.

“No one should eat a meal of tuna with mercury levels like those found in the restaurant samples more than about once every three weeks,” said Dr. Michael Gochfeld, professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J.

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By Maani, January 25, 2008 at 9:01 am Link to this comment


See the following two articles.

Hope these are helpful.


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By cyrena, January 25, 2008 at 12:22 am Link to this comment

I’ve NEVER thought all of those ‘government regulations’ were bad. And, I’ve been long convinced that the folks who are supposed to PROVIDE the much needed funding that the FDA requires to find out where the problems are, don’t WANT them to find out where the problems are.

THAT’S why Texas is the most DEREGULATED state in the union, and that’s why the East Coast get’s hit with all of their shit. Well, I should clarify that. TX is the most deregulated state when it comes to stuff like regulations on the air and water quality, as well as the dirt quality, and all of that. They have plenty of regulations like the old “Blue Law’ which prevents one from buying panty hose or dish soap, or any non-food item on Sundays. And then of course there are the wet and dry areas, regulated for booze sales, and you can’t buy that ANYWHERE on Sunday. (wet, dry, or muddy). But, polluting the environment is always allowed.

Now you guys realize of course, that poor folks eat a lot of canned tuna. Not sushi, but plain old canned tuna, whenever it’s on sale. So, is it any less dangerous than the fresh stuff? Based on these comments, the mercury doesn’t disappear in the canning/processing.

Now el jefe, when you say eat lower on the food chain, give me some hints here. I eat mostly fish and poulty. How much lower can I get? Are you saying I have to survive on beans and rice forever? (I mean I know a lot of folks do, but still)

So, what are my other options?

Meantime, I have another question for anybody who knows or can answer this. I just bought a very expensive dozen eggs last week. At least I thought it was expensive. $3.79 for a dozen of what were labeled ‘large’ eggs, which these days really means small, since there’s still the extra large and the jumbo beyond them. Now the carton says, (among other things like the “Omega content” that they have 25% LESS SATURATED FAT than ‘regular’ eggs. Can somebody tell me how they get 25% of the saturated fat out of these eggs, as opposed to ‘regular’ eggs? What are ‘regular’ eggs anyway?

Are ALL eggs not laid by chickens? I really wanna know this. I don’t understand it. Do they feed these chickens 25% less saturated fat than ‘regular’ chickens? How many chickens eat ANY saturated fat? Don’t chickens eat some sort of seed or other grains? (no, I’m not an agricultural specialist, and I don’t know anything about farms or chicken factories). I just wanna know how some eggs can have 25% less saturated fat than other eggs.

Please help. I won’t be able to sleep until I get the answer to this, and I simply cannot keep buying eggs that cost nearly $4.00 a dozen. It’s totally insane. I’d rather just have regular eggs, from regular chickens, at maybe $1.79 a dozen on the high end, and I don’t really CARE how much saturated fat they’ve got.

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By Blackspeare, January 24, 2008 at 8:38 pm Link to this comment

Nice to see someone else replies to archived posts!!!

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By Maani, January 24, 2008 at 7:45 pm Link to this comment

You?  Play devil’s advocate?  Nooooo…  Tell me it’s not so!  LOL.

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By Blackspeare, January 24, 2008 at 7:05 pm Link to this comment

Of course you are correct.  I knew if I made an outrageous post someone or two would respond with a comprehensive explanation.  I just like to play devil’s advocate once in awhile.

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By Maani, January 24, 2008 at 3:24 pm Link to this comment

“The report found especially high levels among Asian New Yorkers, especially foreign-born Chinese, and people with high incomes.”

Sadly, now if we “eat the rich,” we may get mercury poisoning!  LOL.

As well, given how often the Chinese have poisoned us in the past year (toothpaste, toys, etc.), this could be seen as payback!  LOL.

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By ocjim, January 24, 2008 at 2:12 pm Link to this comment

Mercury occurs naturally in the environment and can also be released into the air through industrial pollution. Mercury falls from the air and can accumulate in streams and oceans and is turned into methylmercury in the water. It is this type of mercury that can be harmful to your unborn baby and young child. Fish absorb the methylmercury as they feed in these waters and so it builds up in them. It builds up more in some types of fish and shellfish than others, depending on what the fish eat, which is why the levels vary.

Minamata disease is, in fact, the name of a disorder caused by methyl mercury poisoning that was first described in the inhabitants of Minamata Bay and resulted from their eating fish contaminated with mercury industrial waste. The disease is characterized by peripheral sensory loss, tremors, dysarthria, ataxia, and both hearing and visual loss.
Even the unborn child is at risk from Minimata disease. Methyl mercury readily crosses the placenta from mother to fetus and is teratogenic, particularly to the developing brain. Children born with Minimata disease can have growth deficiency, microcephaly (an abnormally small head), severe mental retardation and be deaf and blind.

Minimata disease has not been confined to Minimata where the source of the mercury was primarily from eating fish caught in the contaminated Bay. Other sources of maternal exposure to methyl mercury have included flour made from seed grain treated with methyl mercury (which affected at least 6,500 people in Iraq) and meat from animals raised on mercury-tainted grain (in New Mexico, USA).

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as of 1999 recommends limiting consumption to 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of fish and shellfish a week and considers 1 part per million of mercury in seafood to be safe. However, top predator fish such as shark and swordfish can have mercury concentrations over 1 part per million. The FDA recommends no more than one serving a week of these two fish for most people and no more than one serving a month for pregnant or nursing women or those who may become pregnant.

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By el jefe, January 24, 2008 at 11:59 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

You don’t know what you are talking about.  All forms of mercury are toxic.  Organic mercury (methyl mercury specifically, which is what makes up 99% of the body burden in fish like tuna) is about 100 times more toxic than inorganic mercury (vapor or salts).  Organic mercury is what caused Minamata disease.  Inorganic mercury was released through industrial useage, then transformed into organic mercury by bacteria which live in the sediments, this form then bioaccumulated into the fish which formed a large part of the diet of those effected.  (Read ‘Industrial Pollution in Japan’ (Jun Ui, 1992, United Nations University Press)  Chapter 4 is all about the horror show that is Minamata disease.)  Inorganic mercury doesn’t bioaccumulate, only organic mercury does.  Our bodies can’t get rid of organic mercury at the same rate that they can inorganic forms. Methyl mercury is what was used in fungicides on grain that caused widespread birth defects in Iraq, Pakistan, and Guatemala in the 60s. A few US cases were linked to it as well. 

Chalmers is correct that you can’t cook mercury out of your food.  That tuna or shark steak may well have elevated levels also.  Eating seafood is generally beneficial, but you should check out Seafood Watch for alternative types.  Most people, even if they consume a lot of fish by urban US standards, aren’t going to see acute effects of mercury poisoning, but there’s little known about the chronic sub-acute effects, and where the tipping point is.  Consuming large amounts of mercury is a serious concern for people who subsistence fish or for whom it is the dominant/only protein source.  Are the levels for warnings are conservative?  Maybe.  I hope so.  That’s kind of the point of a warning.  So, Blackspeare, are you volunteering to eat only tuna and high mercury fish, or are you just dismissive of the warning because it comes from the evil government and they can’t be trusted?  Go read some of the scientific literature before you spout off again.

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By Leopold, January 24, 2008 at 11:09 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How We Get Mercury in Fish, the Environment, and Us

Although people can experience problems if exposed directly to elemental mercury, the normal way for them to get a dose of mercury is from a piece of fish. But mercury is not a natural toxin in fish, so how did it get there?

The chain of events goes something like this:

  1. Mercury gets into the air as a byproduct of industrial activities such as chlorine production, power generation from coal, garbage incineration, automobile recycling, and some mining and manufacturing processes.
  2. From there, the airborne mercury is deposited on land and water, where microorganisms convert it into a more biologically active form, methylmercury.
  3. picture of can of tuna The methylmercury then works its way up the food chain. Because organisms tend to store mercury, not excrete it, concentrations of mercury get higher and higher as larger, longer-living creatures gobble up smaller ones. By the time you get to a top predator fish like a swordfish, albacore tuna, or shark, the concentrations are quite high.
  4. When humans eat these fish and some others, they get the mercury that’s in the fish flesh.

Effects of Mercury – Who’s Most at Risk?

According to the Physicians for Social Responsibility, research has shown that:

  * short-term exposure to high concentrations of mercury vapor has harmful effects on the nervous system, digestive system, respiratory system, and kidneys;
  * long-term exposure to mercury can permanently damage the brain and kidneys at any age;
  * long-term animal studies have also found that exposure to organic mercury (such as methylmercury) at high levels can cause nervous system damage; damage to the kidneys, stomach, and large intestine; changes in blood pressure and heart rate; adverse effects on male reproductive organs, sperm, and developing fetuses; and an increase in the number of spontaneous abortions and stillbirths.

graphic of baby inside pregnant woman Because mercury is particularly troublesome for developing nervous systems, fetuses, infants, and young children are most at risk. The National Academy of Sciences states that mercury in pregnant women disrupts the development of brain cells in their babies. A January 2003 report by Centers for Disease Control concluded that one in six women of childbearing age have mercury in their blood above the level that would pose a risk to a developing fetus. Clearly, pregnant women and parents of young children should take extra precautions.
Who’s the Bad Guy on Mercury Contamination?

On the surface, this one’s easy: anyone who’s dragging their feet on reducing mercury air pollution. We should realize, though, that most of us have enjoyed the benefits of cheap-but-dirty coal-generated electricity for decades, as well as the fruits of the other industrial processes the cause mercury pollution. Still, many manufacturing sources have been greatly cleaned up, and the focus is now squarely on coal-fired power plants.

It’s a shame that our leaders have let the mercury problem fester for so long. It would have been worth a few extra bucks every month on our power bills to keep the fish supply clean. But it’s better that we take action late instead of never.

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By Blackspeare, January 24, 2008 at 10:37 am Link to this comment

What is interesting is that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who has ben harmed by eating fish with what is considered higher than “normal” levels of mercury.  And the reason is that mercury compound found in fish is not harmful.  Yes, mercury metal vapor (Mad Hatter) and inorganic mercury salts are indeed poisonous, but mercury bound in an organic matrix is not!  Please excues the pun, but the EPA’s concern about mercury in fish is a red herring, it’s on some official’s agenda and is probably their life’s work——what a waste.  Oh, one more point, the mercury levels (preservative) in vaccines are quite a bit higher than that found in fish.

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By Douglas Chalmers, January 24, 2008 at 9:08 am Link to this comment

By QuyTran, January 24: “Don’t kill yourself by eating raw fishs through the “silent killer” called Sushi…”

Dumb, QuyTran! Mercury (a heavy metal) stays in the flesh even if cooked, uhh.

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By QuyTran, January 24, 2008 at 8:51 am Link to this comment

Don’t kill yourself by eating raw fishs through the “silent killer” called Sushi !

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By el jefe, January 23, 2008 at 9:26 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yes, Mercury in fish is a concern, but to be fair, Minamata disease was caused by unregulated industrial release to a couple of specific areas.  Read Industrial Pollution in Japan (Jun Ui, 1992.  Chapter 4 specifically.  It tells the horrible tale of a government and society controlled by business and focused only on economic growth.  Unfortunately, it’s not isolated to Japan.  There were cases in Iraq, Guatemala, and Pakistan in the late 1960s. (These were caused by mercuric fungicides that used to be put on grains, which happened to be grown in the US.)  Luckily, since then we have had progress in limiting the use of mercury.

That said, it’s not entirely surprising.  Mercury is a global pollutant.  Methylmercury bioaccumulates into top predators.  The big tuna prized for sushi (which I happen to love but am financially limited from eating very often) is a top predator.  Eating fish is good, but you should stay away from large predatory fish.  Check out Seafood Watch ( to see what good alternatives are.  Even sportfish can have high levels.  Largemouth bass in relatively unpolluted areas can have levels that are over the EPA warning level.  The fish tested for this article were over 3 times that.  Unfortunately, the FDA doesn’t do regular testing.  The west coast gets China’s mercury from coal power air pollution, and the east coast gets Texas’.  Still support coal power?  Still think all those government regulations are bad?  Like clean (air, water, and food) thank a liberal.

Now I’m just rambling.  Eat lower on the food chain.  Insist that the FDA get the funding required to figure out where problems are.

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By ocjim, January 23, 2008 at 9:13 pm Link to this comment

It is unconscionable that we have no program of testing mercury content. The last two decades have seen government leaders who were totally irresponsible about consumer protection, but the Bush administration has been almost criminal. I wonder how many people—men, women and child—have been poisoned because of the Bush relaxation of standards for coal-burning power plants. That could be more deaths under his responsibility.

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By Douglas Chalmers, January 23, 2008 at 8:01 pm Link to this comment

Check “Minamata disease” - from mercury contamination!

According to a 2007 survey by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the average level of mercury in New Yorkers’ blood is three times higher than the national average. The report found especially high levels among Asian New Yorkers, especially foreign-born Chinese, and people with high incomes. The report noted that Asians tend to eat more seafood, and it speculated that wealthier people favored fish, like swordfish and bluefin tuna, that happen to have higher mercury levels…..

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