Sources of Mercury Misinformation

See this related seafood lobby fable:
Fable: The mercury “scare” is media and environmentalist hype

Fable: The mercury “scare” is media and environmentalist hype.

Facts: The message that there is no scientific concern about methylmercury, that the issue is a scare hyped up by biased reporters and environmentalists promoting more regulation, is one of the seafood lobby’s favorite fables. But it’s the biggest fish story of all.

The truth is that most public-interest and environmental organizations that have publicized mercury-in-fish issues have accurately interpreted the best scientific evidence and the consensus positions of health authorities. The vast majority of misinformation on the subject comes from the seafood lobby itself. For reporters and others interested in evaluating the trustworthiness of information sources on this topic, we survey here the seafood lobby’s most prominent public-relations campaigners and the tactics they use to mislead the public, harass the media and scientists who speak out about mercury, and undercut government advice.

When the government began warning consumers about the risks of methylmercury in fish, the seafood lobby launched a public-relations campaign designed to deny the risks, promote fish consumption, and minimize damage to their economic interests. The PR effort continues, waged by the seafood industry’s trade associations and their ideological allies, pseudo-independent propaganda operations like the Center for Consumer Freedom. This PR effort promotes the fables addressed here and aggressively seeks to neutralize “bad publicity,” i.e., accurate stories in the media about methylmercury and its risks.

A few organizations and individuals work unstintingly to get the industry’s message out. Leading actors, with links to web sites where their positions speak for themselves, include:

The National Fisheries Institute. NFI has been especially vigorous in responding to media reports it considers unfavorable. NFI styles itself as a “truth squad,” attacks organizations and individuals that believe mercury in fish is a public health concern, and hounds journalists whose reporting reflects that concern. This trade association has relentlessly promoted the fable that the “reference dose” is 58 micrograms per liter of methylmercury in blood and asserts that information about mercury risks is harming public health by making Americans eat less fish.

The Tuna Industry. Known as the US Tuna Foundation until 2007, when this trade association merged into the National Fisheries Institute and changed its name to the Tuna Council, the tuna industry placed full-page ads in major newspapers in 2004, urging pregnant women to ignore the just-issued EPA/FDA advice and eat more tuna. They have sponsored research designed to show that mercury warnings are hazardous to health, and paid to set up a pseudo-objective informational web site, (see below).

The Center for Consumer Freedom. Despite having “consumer” in its name, CCF is an industry PR front run by former lobbyist Rick Berman. Under the banner of defending freedom of choice, CCF has led opposition to smoking bans in restaurants, drunk driving laws and anti-obesity policies. Berman and his assistant, David Martosko, operate two mercury-disinformation web sites and often respond to media coverage of the topic even more aggressively than the seafood industry itself does. Berman and Martosko have refused to say who pays them for this PR work. A more truthful name for this web site, run by the Center for Consumer Freedom, would be “” It has a “mercury calculator” that tells consumers they can eat fish containing ten times the dose of methylmercury considered safe by the EPA and FDA. Its concept of “facts” includes ad hominem criticism of scientists whose research has documented mercury hazards, attacks on reporters and public-interest organizations that have written about mercury, and the dismissal as “myths” of well-established scientific facts about the extent and seriousness of methylmercury exposure. is another Berman/Martosko/CCF enterprise. The content of this site is very similar to that of the site, but Berman has promoted this web site—and the theme, that concerns about mercury in fish are a “scare” cooked up by environmentalists—with a billboard in Times Square (featured on the Fishscam home page), warning the public not to get “hooked on the hype.”

Healthy Mothers/Healthy Babies Coalition. HMHB is an alliance of public health and nutritional organizations that promotes prenatal nutrition and other factors that support healthy pregnancies and births. In 2007 HMHB assembled an “expert panel” on risks and benefits of fish consumption during pregnancy. The group included just prenatal nutritionists; no researchers on toxic effects of methylmercury participated. HMHB issued a statement by the group urging pregnant women to ignore concerns about mercury and to eat more fish than the amounts recommended by the FDA/EPA—exactly the same advice issued by the seafood lobby. At that time, an executive of the PR firm Burson-Marsteller was vice-chair of the HMHB Board of Directors (this is still the case), and Burson-Marsteller represented the National Fisheries Institute. Burson-Marsteller had advised NFI to promote the fear that mercury warnings could make people eat less fish, to motivate nutritionists to speak out against mercury advisories. HMHB’s statement putting that strategy into action was supported by $74,000 from NFI –$14,000 in honoraria paid to the experts, and a $60,000 grant to HMHB to promote the resulting statement. After the statement was publicized, several organizational members of HMHB said they disagreed with it and had not known about or approved it, but HMHB itself has refused to disavow it.

How they operate: The seafood lobby and its allies (in particular, Martosko) often respond hyper-aggressively to media stories about methylmercury risks. They seem ever-alert and ready to pounce on published statements suggesting that mercury in fish poses health risks. They can overwhelm reporters and editors with letters, e-mails, press releases, statements on their web sites, and blog comments. They typically allege that the reporters’ stories contain errors, are one-sided, and harm public health by scaring people away from eating fish. They endlessly assert fables documented here, burdening reporters with pressure to defend their well-researched stories against an onslaught of misinformation. They browbeat editors with demands for “equal time” and claim that stories that did not give their fanciful “facts” equal weight with respectable scientific findings are biased, shoddy journalism.

Sometimes, through sheer persistence or because some editors’ sympathize with their point of view, these PR masters get what they want—a follow-up story giving more play to their arguments, or perhaps a retraction of a minor error that they can then try to use to discredit the entire story. Sometimes the effect may be more subtle, simply discouraging journalists from covering mercury hazards.

These examples illustrate the seafood lobby’s PR tactics in action:

Marian Burros, the seasoned food reporter for the New York Times, has reported several timely, accurate stories about mercury and fish. Her deep knowledge of the subject and the high profile of the Times have made her the target of particularly intense industry attacks. For example, in January 2008, Burros wrote a story based on new test data showing that tuna sushi has a high mercury content. NFI issued a press release and sent the Times a series of lengthy letters, asserting that the story was full of errors, omissions and biases, and demanding a retraction. NFI kept up this assault for weeks, repeating the same claims again and again, and at one point, suggesting that Burros be fired. Her editor gave in marginally to the pressure and published a “correction” (appended to the story linked above), clarifying the meaning of the US EPA Reference Dose, cited (accurately) in the original story.

In March 2008, the Houston Chronicle published a report by David Ellison that, like Burros’ story, included new test data showing high mercury levels in tuna sushi. NFI responded with a press statement that challenged the Chronicle’s facts with seafood lobby fables, and cited a few industry-friendly media comments produced by its earlier efforts as evidence that Burros’ story (and by implication, the Chronicle’s repeat of the Times’ investigation) had been “discredited.” NFI pressed the same claims in a series of letters to the Chronicle over the next three weeks. The Chronicle stood by its reporting, but did publish a short letter from NFI on a disputed factual point.

Sharon Begley, Newsweek science editor, has covered mercury-in-fish issues several times on her blog; the industry has submitted lengthy, argumentative comments in response to many of her pieces. For example, when Begley picked up the mercury-in-sushi story and wrote skeptically about the seafood lobby’s counter-offensive, pointing out their numerous errors, the seafood PR machine raised such a fuss that Newsweek’s management gave them “equal time” to post a sarcastic response, written by Martosko, on her blog. In March 2009, when Begley wrote about the NFI’s attack on reporter Sue Kwon (see next example), her posting drew long comments from Gavin Gibbons of NFI (twice) and Martosko. Their barrage was leavened by a lone posting from an anonymous scientist who pointed out errors and falsehoods in their responses. Begley appears to have stood her ground in the face of industry outrage over her well informed, accurate coverage.

In March 2009 Sue Kwon, of KPIX TV in San Francisco, reported that she ate a can of albacore tuna a day for 20 days. Her blood mercury level rose from 4 (before she began the experiment) to 17 micrograms per liter, three times the EPA Reference Level. Kwon interviewed Dr. Jane Hightower, who discussed the risks associated with elevated mercury exposure. NFI e-mailed a long letter to KPIX’s station manager, aggressively attacking Hightower, arguing that Kwon’s report was full of errors, and asserting their favorite fables. They kept the pressure on, sending at least two more letters. NFI also prepared a video response, and posted it on You Tube. In both the first NFI letter and the original You Tube video, the industry claimed that the “level of mercury in blood that approaches risk” was 580 micrograms per liter. When that outrageous untruth was caught by other reporters, Gibbons quickly backpedaled, claiming he had made a “decimal-point error,” and NFI revised the statement in its You Tube posting (retreating to its long-standing false claim that the safe limit for mercury in blood is 58 micrograms per liter.) Meanwhile, Kwon spent many days trying to satisfy her managers that her report had been accurate and fair.

In December, 2005, Chicago Tribune reporters Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne published a series of investigative reports on mercury in fish, including test data on levels in fish sold in Chicago markets. They have continued to cover the subject in many subsequent reports. NFI has tried to respond to every one, it seems, either by sending letters to the Tribune or by posting comments by Gavin Gibbons on the NFI blog. Gibbons has singled out reporter Hawthorne for scathing criticism, labeling him an “environmental activist” and citing his work in an “open letter to journalists” that complains about NFI’s perceived unfair media coverage. Berman and Martosko, on, put Hawthorne, Roe and the Tribune right at the top of the list in their gallery of “fearmongers.” Being squarely in the industry’s crosshairs has to date not dissuaded the Tribune and its reporters from their coverage.

In May 2009, Vogue carried a report, “Mercury Rising,” by Bronwyn Garrity, which described concerns about mercury in terms aimed at non-scientific readers. NFI issued a press release and fired off a letter to Vogue, launching a broadside of its standard accusations and factual distortions. We learned, by talking with Ms. Garrity, that the NFI also tried, unsuccessfully, to get the story killed before it ran. Since it appeared, NFI has missed few opportunities to attack it, in blog entries and in their “open letter to journalists.”

Journalists are not alone in feeling the seafood lobby’s wrath. Scientists whose research addresses the health risks of methylmercury in fish have also been targets of personal attacks. The late Kathryn Mahaffey was the EPA’s leading expert on heavy metal toxicity. She conducted several careful analyses of CDC data, concluded that mercury risks were probably larger than had yet been recognized, and made a case for that conclusion in journal articles and presentations at scientific meetings. NFI called Mahaffey an “environmental activist” (not a positive description in their world view) and repeatedly claimed that her views did not represent the positions of the EPA. Berman and Martosko accused her of “turning common sense on its head” and posted a lengthy critique of her work, blending strong flavors of scientific distortion and ad hominem attack, on their web site.

Jane Hightower MD, a San Francisco physician, sees many patients in her practice who eat a great deal of fish. She began testing their blood for mercury, and found 89 percent of these frequent fish eaters had levels above the EPA Reference Level, as high as 85 micrograms per liter. Some of the patients had symptoms consistent with mercury poisoning. Dr. Hightower concluded that repeatedly eating high-mercury fish could be a hazard to her patients’ health. She has published her findings in scientific articles, written a book for popular audiences about her experiences, and has been very outspoken, often quoted in media reports on this topic. That has made her a major thorn in the seafood lobby’s side, and they have attacked her aggressively. The NFI letter to KPIX TV tried hard to discredit Hightower, calling her “an anti-seafood activist…who is promoting her book.” Berman/Martosko’s posting on Hightower says her “social activist leanings shout down her medical credentials,” accuses her of mounting “a one-doctor crusade to save the world from fish,” and tries to discredit her published research, citing limitations that Hightower herself pointed out in the paper while accusing her of bad science. Dr. Hightower has taken these attacks as evidence of her effectiveness in communicating about the mercury problem.

Marian Nestle, a professor of nutrition at NYU and the author of popular books about healthy eating, posted a comment on the sushi/mercury issue on her blog. She referred to the Center for Consumer Freedom as “the tuna industry’s public relations agency” and linked to Begley’s blog item with background on CCF’s anti-consumer agenda. CCF was not amused; in a response that Nestle posted on her blog, Martosko vehemently denied that CCF was paid by the tuna industry, argued that Nestle could not prove it, and threatened to sue her for libel. She was apparently not intimidated. Both her original posting and Martosko’s denial are still on Nestle’s blog.

In December 2008, actor Jeremy Piven withdrew from a Broadway play, stating that he was suffering from methylmercury poisoning from a high-fish diet. His withdrawal and the reason for it made news. Piven and his physician appeared on Good Morning America, where they described lab data and symptoms supporting the diagnosis of mercury poisoning. NFI didn’t believe it. They issued a press release suggesting that Piven was malingering, posted several blog items attacking his credibility, and generated some skeptical media coverage. NFI also posted a video on You Tube in which they inserted their own challenges to Piven’s diagnosis into his GMA appearance. Months later, Piven was vindicated in an arbitration, but NFI still doesn’t believe it. They issued a statement that “No peer reviewed medical journal has ever published any evidence of a case of methylmercury poisoning caused by the normal consumption of commercial seafood in the U.S. This ruling does not change that simple scientific fact.” (See Fable) As Piven’s case attracted media attention for months, NFI mirrored that media play on their blog, attacking Piven personally and ridiculing him and his illness, trying to deflate the impact of a celebrity “victim.”

In summary, these examples show that any journalist, author or celebrity who wants to publicize information about mercury in fish and related health issues is almost certain to encounter determined push-back from an energetic seafood lobby public-relations team. The leaders of this PR effort, Gavin Gibbons of NFI and David Martosko of CCF, rely heavily on fables catalogued here to try to neutralize science-based public health concerns about mercury, and to convince journalists that “their side” is as valid as the “other side” of the issue.

These PR tactics and their underlying falsehoods have been exposed and dissected in published reports by Marian Burros, Sharon Begley, and by Jim Motavalli in e magazine, among others. Despite this exposure, the attacks will continue, because, well, it’s their job. As long as mercury remains a public-health concern and a threat to their economic and ideological interests, there is no reason to expect these fable-spinners to stop.

If the information collected here helps reporters and others realize that assaults from the seafood lobby and its allies over their stories about mercury are basically boiler-plate sound and fury; that the industry fires its cannons at every report they don’t like; and that their ammunition is almost entirely misrepresentations of the facts, it should be easier to recognize these shallow, self-interested PR attacks for what they are, to deflect them without giving in to them, and to waste less time responding in detail. If so, our work will have served its public service purpose.