Don’t Worry, Eat More Fish

When I called what I thought was the office of Rick Berman’s Berman & Company public relations firm, the voice answering said, “American Beverage Institute, how may I help you?” But not to worry, the operator gladly connected me to Mr. Berman’s office. Welcome to the tangled web spun by one of the food industry’s best friends in Washington

What is the American Beverage Institute, anyway? According to its website, it is a trade group “dedicated to protecting the on-premise dining experience—which often includes the responsible consumption of adult beverages.” ABI is “relentless in our support of responsible consumption—and of the time-honored custom of dining out with friends.” In other words, it defends the right to quaff alcoholic drinks in bars and restaurants across the land against the “modern-day prohibitionists who seek to target these sensible adults.”

But maybe the contemporary Carrie Nations have a point. Drunk drivers coming home from the neighborhood taverns exact quite a toll. According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics taken from the Mothers Against Drunk Driving website, “16,694 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes [in 2004]—an average of one almost every half-hour. These deaths constituted approximately 39 percent of the 42,636 total traffic fatalities.”

New York Times readers encountered another of Berman & Company’s groups when they opened their December 19, 2005 paper and saw a full-page ad that read, in its entirety, “Hooked on Mercury Hype?”

A spokesperson confirmed that is a “project” of Berman’s Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), but Andrew Porter, CCF communications director, declined to comment for this piece. “We are offering no comment,” he said. “I hope you are able to move on without our input.”

The slickly produced website seeks to debunk the idea that the public is in any danger from mercury-tainted seafood. It suggests that mercury levels in the environment have actually decreased over the last 100 years, adding that scientific studies (conducted by the Smithsonian and Princeton, among others) reveal declining amounts of mercury in tuna.

Contrast this with the work of the Mercury Policy Project (MPP), which says, based on its own independent testing, that one out of every 20 cans of “white” or albacore tuna “should be recalled as unsafe for human consumption.” Mercury exposure, says MPP, “can cause severe learning disabilities and other neuro-developmental problems in babies and young children. Recent Centers for Disease Control (CDC) findings indicate that eight percent of woman of childbearing age in the U.S. have unsafe mercury levels, translating into over 300,000 babies born at risk each year. MPP’s testing found that mercury levels in [white] canned tuna averaged over 0.5 parts per million (ppm) mercury.”

In 2004, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a pointed warning. It said that “some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child’s developing nervous system. The risks from mercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of mercury in the fish and shellfish. Therefore, the [FDA] and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.” The FDA advised women and young children to “eat up to 12 ounces (two average meals) a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury.”

What did the FDA say about “white” tuna? “[A]lbacore (“white”) tuna has more mercury than canned light tuna. So, when choosing your two meals of fish and shellfish, you may eat up to six ounces (one average meal) of albacore tuna per week.” Seems like an unambiguous warning, doesn’t it?

Still, for the folks at FishScam, it’s a “myth” that mercury in fish presents a serious health risk to Americans. Even though they eat 12 to 14 fish meals every week in the Seychelles Islands, a 12-year study found no negative health effects from dietary exposure to mercury, says the website. The FishScammers also debunk the notion that, every year, 630,000 children are born with mercury levels in their blood that puts them “at risk” for neurological disorders later in life. This “outrageous statistic” was created by EPA scientist Kathryn Mahaffey without official agency backing, the group claims. Someone should inform U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME), because this dangerous misinformation is reported verbatim on her website.

And by the way, this rogue EPA scientist was the author of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) “Report to Congress on Mercury,” and a primary author of the EPA’s “Mercury Study Report to Congress.” In 2002, she received EPA’s highest science award, the “Science Achievement Award in Health Sciences.” Far from getting fired, she is currently director of the Division of Exposure Assessment, Coordination and Policy within the Office of Science Coordination and Policy of OPPTS, U.S. EPA. According to EPA, she “remains active in research and developing U.S. EPA’s policies on methylmercury.”

Far from disowning her work, EPA hosts her 2004 slide show on methylmercury exposure. She cites a figure (based on 2003-2004 data) of at least 300,000 newborns in the U.S. each year with elevated in-utero blood levels, corresponding to the Mercury Policy Project’s estimates. Further, she notes the Seychelles “no adverse effects” report but also cites two other scientific reports: One (Yokoo et al. 2003) showed “reduced function on tests of fine motor speed and dexterity and on tests of verbal memory among adult Amazonian villagers exposed to methylmercury.” The second (Beuter and Edwards, 2003) was among exposed Cree Indians. “Additional studies among adults showed difficulty with accuracy and sharpness of visual fixation and pursuit in dynamic eye movements,” Mahaffey wrote.

Much of what’s on the FishScam website follows closely the revelations of a lengthy report prepared for the scorched-earth chairman of the House Resources Committee, Richard Pombo (R-CA). The House report was presumably authored by Pombo’s staff, and that of Mineral Resources Subcommittee Chairman Jim Gibbons (R-NV).

Making us feel safe about mercury is just one of Berman’s many projects, coordinated through the CCF, which was formerly called the Guest Choice Network. According to, Berman launched the Guest Choice Network (which derided “nanny culture”) in 1995 with funding that was then entirely from Phillip Morris. In a 1995 letter to Phillip Morris, Berman wrote that he was trying to “unite the restaurant and hospitality industries in a campaign to defend their consumers and marketing programs against attacks from anti-smoking, anti-drinking, anti-meat, etc. activists.”

He evidently succeeded. CCF’s board includes many food, beverage and restaurant industry heavyweights. Contributors, again according to Sourcewat, have included Coca-Cola, Monsanto, Excel/Cargill, Tyson Foods, Wendy’s, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue Farms, Quantum Foods, Armour-Swift, King and Prince Seafood, Coldwater Seafood, Save-on Seafood, Dean Foods and many others.

Berman, a former Bethlehem Steel labor law attorney and onetime vice president of the Steak and Ale restaurant chain, was associated in the early 1990s with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, whose class on “Renewing American Civilization” he reportedly supported with a $25,000 contribution. He came under fire in 2004 from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which filed a complaint with the IRS charging CCF with violating its tax-exempt status by 1) engaging in prohibited electioneering against then-candidate Dennis Kucinich; 2) making “substantial payments” to Berman & Co. and to Berman himself; and 3) for engaging in “activities with no charitable purpose.”

It’s uncertain how the IRS complaint was resolved. Peter Slutsky, a communications associate with Citizens for Responsibility, said he would investigate. “My guess is that nothing ever happened, which is usually the case with IRS complaints,” he said.

Berman can often be found on op-ed pages across America, especially when fast food or chain restaurants are impugned. He denounced the documentary Super Size Me for “serving up a flawed premise, that we’re powerless to stop Big Food from turning us into a nation of fatties.” As the American Prospect put it, “From his offices a block from the White House, Berman wages a never-ending public-relations assault on doctors, health advocates, scientists, food researchers and just about anyone else who highlights the health downsides of eating junk food or being obese.” So warnings about mercury in the seafood on America’s plates are certainly in his sights.

CONTACT: Kathryn Mahaffey EPA Slide Show on

House Resources Committee Mercury Study

E Magazine Report on Mercury

Flash! Mahaffey Wins New Award

After presstime for this column, we received word that EPA scientist Kathryn Mahaffey, whose work was questioned by, has won yet another award for her work on methylmercury. The Society of Toxicology confirmed that Mahaffey will be the 2006 winner of the Arnold J. Lehman Award for regulatory toxicology. The ceremony will take place at the society”s 45th annual meeting in San Diego this March.

The award is presented “to recognized individuals who have made a major contribution to risk assessment and/or the regulation of chemical agents including pharmaceuticals. The contribution may have resulted from the application of sound scientific principles to regulation and/or from research activities that have significantly influenced the regulatory process.”

Mahaffey comments, “The award is for the work I have done on lead toxicity and on risk assessments for methylmercury. The latter, of course, include the population exposure estimates that have put me in the crosshairs of groups like The importance of professional societies in re-affirming the merits, relevance and strength of our work has gained new meaning to me. Having the major scientific society for my profession award my work on risk assessment for methylmercury is a level of support that I consider highly reinforcing.”