Consumer Reports’ Fishy Advice to Pregnant Woman: Skip the Tuna

Magazine’s special report about mercury exposure disputes FDA guidelines, urges people to tell FDA to change recommendations.

Consumer Reports admits that fish are a high-protein food that provide “important fuel for your baby’s brain development,” but the magazine is upset by the Food and Drug Administration’s latest advice on fish consumption.

In CR’s October 2014 edition of the magazine rebuked the FDA for not telling pregnant women to avoid all tuna even though tuna, especially canned tuna, is one of the low-cost sources of heart-healthy fish that is important for adults and children. The magazine ignored input from the industry and only included the FDA’s own defense in its report.

The FDA, along with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), published a new draft version of advice about fish consumption for pregnant women and parents in June 2014. In it, the FDA recommended people consume eight to 12 ounces of fish low in mercury each week.

The agency listed salmon, shrimp, pollock, tuna (light canned), tilapia, catfish and cod as fish that are “lower in mercury,” and advised young children and pregnant women to avoid the four fish that are highest in mercury.

That was unacceptable to Consumer Reports which lashed out against the FDA’s proposed advice with its special report that warned, “Can eating the wrong fish put you at higher risk for mercury exposure?”

“[I]f Americans follow those guidelines without careful attention to which species they are consuming, they could end up taking in too much mercury,” Consumer Reports said. “Though the agencies say consumers should seek out fish that are low in mercury, almost all seafood contains the toxin in varying amounts, and getting too much of it can damage the brain and nervous system. That is especially true for fetuses, but children and adults who eat too much high-mercury seafood also can suffer harmful effects such as problems with fine motor coordination, speech, sleep, and walking, and prickly sensations.”

Sounds scary, but there’s much more to the story than Consumer Reports said.

Consumer Reports (CR) is a magazine that calls itself “an expert, independent, nonprofit organization” meant to protect consumers, but upon a closer look at the “policy and action” division of CR, called Consumers Union, a pro-regulation and and anti-industry bias becomes clear.

On its website, Consumers Union proudly proclaimed, “We work with our million plus activists to pass consumer protection laws in states and in Congress. We hammer corporations that do wrong by their customers, and encourage companies that are heading in the right direction.”

CR magazine also recently promoted fears of milk alternatives, complaining of “heavy metals” and attacking GMO soy milk. GMOs are a favorite target of some on the left, in spite of the science.

American Enterprise Institute criticized that article, saying that “every major science agency around the world has determined that the kind of levels CR is noting are biologically meaningless, but that hasn’t stopped it from issuing scare-o-grams. It’s a missed opportunity to educate consumers about the difference between unwarranted fears and genuine dangers, but that’s the direction CR has been heading in recent years.”

Consumer Union also has liberal political connections. Far left former Green Party and Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader used to be on the board of Consumers Union, according to The New York Times. He’s not the only lefty associated with the group. While she was still a Harvard law professor, liberal Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., spoke at the Consumers’ Union Activist Summit in 2010.

Fishy Business: CR Could Scare People Away from Benefits of Tuna

A mother-to-be or parents of young children might have easily been scared off of tuna, and other fish by reading Consumer Reports’ latest attack on fish. The magazine was adamant that “We don’t think pregnant women should eat any” tuna, canned light tuna or albacore tuna.

But canned tuna is an extremely popular way that people eat fish, likely due to its convenience and low cost compared to many other varieties of seafood.

If fears of mercury were to keep pregnant women and children from eating fish, that would be a big problem, according to health experts.

Fish provide excellent health benefits thanks to their omega-3 fatty acids. The Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) said the benefits of having one or two servings of fatty fish each week “reduces the chances of dying from heart disease by more than one-third.” Other benefits can include lower blood pressure, triglycerides and less inflammation, HSPH said on its website.

They also said studies showed “omega-3 fats in fish are important for optimal development of a baby’s brain and nervous system, and that the children of women who consume lower amounts of fish or omega-3’s during pregnancy and breast-feeding have evidence of delayed brain development.

Oddly, Consumer Reports quoted a person from the Harvard School of Public Health in its story to make the case against the FDA’s recommendations. But Harvard warned not enough Americans are eating the seafood they should for improved health.

“Except perhaps for a few fish species, the scale tips in favor of fish consumption for women who are pregnant. High intake of mercury appears to hamper a baby’s brain development. But low intake of omega-3 fats from fish is at least as dangerous.”Harvard concluded.

Consumer Reports only allowed the FDA to defend its own advice. But there was no industry voice included in its story (only a single data point about the percentage of light tuna consumed), even though the Vice President of Communications for the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) wrote to Consumer Reports in June 2014, appealed to them to provide a “more thorough, balanced and science-based job of reporting on tuna that it has in the past.”

NFI pointed to a series of attacks on tuna that it said were “not only a disappointment from a journalistic standpoint but revealed an agenda rife with misinformation and mischaracterization that can only be described as intentional.”

Unfortunately, other media outlets have publicized Consumer Reports’ latest tuna slam including all three broadcast networks’ morning news shows. USA Today also aired an uncritical piece repeated Consumer Reports’ warning.. At least The Washington Post included a statement from NFI which read, “Though we urged CR to do a thorough, balanced and science-based job, that obviously did not happen. Minimal research would have presented reporters literally hundreds of independent seafood studies from the FDA to the World Health Organization that clearly demonstrate the net benefit gained from eating seafood, like tuna.”

— Julia A. Seymour is Assistant Managing Editor for the Business and Media Institute at the Media Research Center. Follow Julia A. Seymour on Twitter.