May 2004 Issue--While more than $1.5 billion of canned tuna is sold in the U.S. each year, the tuna industry is facing a crisis. As reported in the New York Times, shrimp has displaced tuna as the most popular seafood in the country, and consumption trends do not hold much promise. Consumption of all types of tuna has fallen by more than 15% over the past four years, and the industry largely attributes the drop to adding mercury warnings to labels of albacore tuna.

The pattern shows no signs of abating. As the Times notes, sales of canned white tuna fell 6% when word spread that such a warning would be added to the label. To add to the troubled waters, analysts fear the effects could extend beyond tuna and to seafood, generally.

The tricky part of the federal advisory is that it does not suggest a complete elimination of tuna from the diet, and it applies only to young children and women planning to have children. For its part, the U.S. Tuna Foundation (USTF) defends tuna consumption by all consumers. The USTF finds that tuna consumption levels 25 times higher than typical consumer consumption patterns still would not exceed the methylmercury guidance provided by any federal agency (see chart).

All of this is in the wake of positive health news surrounding tuna consumption, the fish being a low-fat, high-protein source of omega-3 fatty acids. With those positive attributes in mind, and hoping to staunch any consumer overreaction to the advisory, the FDA and EPA listed other seafood with low mercury content in the advisory, among these were light tuna. Plus, officials added a pair of sentences highlighting how seafood helps the heart and is beneficial to children's development.