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SAN FRANCISCO - The tuna industry disputes the state of California's suit against the producers of Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea, and StarKist for not warning shoppers about mercury content, saying that such an action could do more harm than good.
According to California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, the companies are in violation of the state's Proposition 65, which requires businesses to warn consumers about harmful chemicals. Alternatives could include signs in grocery aisles or labels on cans. The suit seeks civil penalties of as much as $2,500 per day for each violation, dating to 2000.
"This is a crucial public health issue," Lockyer said in a press release. "Prenatal exposure to mercury can cause serious disabilities in infants and children. 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."
Last year Lockyer filed a similar suit, now pending in San Francisco Superior Court, against grocery stores and restaurants selling shark, swordfish and tuna.
The current suit, also filed in San Francisco Superior Court, seeks to prevent the companies from selling their tuna in California without providing a warning. The FDA advises pregnant women and nursing mothers to eat only six ounce of canned albacore tuna and 12 ounces of canned light tuna per week.
David Burney, executive director of the U.S. Tuna Foundation, told Progressive Grocer that the tuna industry was unique in that mercury naturally occurs in the deep-water fish rather than being added during processing. Proposition 65 doesn't apply to such substances derived from natural sources. As to the FDA advisory, he stressed that his organization "had no problem with it, only the rhetoric around it, which damages the integrity of the product." He added that consumer confusion was growing as a result of all the conflicting information, and pointed out that in a country where obesity has reached epidemic proportions, "it's just crazy to tell people not to eat fish."
Chris Lischewski, president of San Deigo-based Bumble Bee, told the city's Union Tribune newspaper that misinformation about the effects of mercury had hurt the tuna industry, and he warned that California's proposed warning labels would end up making shoppers steer clear.
"There has never been a case of methylmercury poisoning in the United States due to seafood," Lischewski noted. "The levels of methylmercury in tuna are trace. They exist, but only in very minute amounts. Our concern is that any kind of warning that is not supplemented by an educational program will chase people away from eating tuna."
John Stiker, s.v.p. of marketing and development at Bumble Bee, told Progressive Grocer that he believed the industry would prevail in the lawsuit, but that the realistic outcome of state-mandated labeling requirements, should they ever come to pass, would be a "logistical nightmare" in which the canned-tuna producers, forced to spend time and effort to prevent cans with warning labels from leaving California, would end up having to raise prices.
In a statement put out by the tuna industry, Burney said that the suit would delay an important education initiative in California aimed at advising pregnant women and nursing mothers on a variety of issues, including the safe inclusion of canned tuna in their diets.