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More Worries About Sushi

 Posted by on January 28, 2008
Jan 282008

By John DeFore

Eco-conscious sushi lovers have for some time had to reconcile their habit with its likely consequences. Popular species of fish are so in-demand that they’re threatened with extinction; just today, a Reuters report discussed decisions by European supermarket chains to voluntarily stop selling bluefin tuna from the Mediterranean in an effort to let stocks recover.

One of America’s most sushi-loving cities was rocked last week by a multi-day assault from its hometown paper. The New York Times reported on an investigation it made into the safety of local sushi that found hazards on the menu at even the most elite restaurants. At issue is mercury, which is stored in animal tissue and builds to greater levels in larger, older fish — fish like bluefin tuna, one of the varieties most prized by connoisseurs. The restaurant roundup was accompanied by a science piece informing readers that, contrary to what they might think, it isn’t only pregnant women and young children who should be wary of mercury: the story cited medical studies linking high mercury levels with heart attacks and cognitive impairments in the general population.

Those stories were followed by an editorial, which pointed out that the mercury in fish enters the food chain largely via runoff pollution of coal-burning power plants, making our lifestyles to blame for the danger in our diet. Today, the subject nearly monopolized the Letters to the Editor, with an analyst from Consumers Union calling for action from the FDA (“we have a study under way,” an FDA toxicologist had told the Times) and Mary Wolff, of Mount Sinai School of Medicine, pointing out that pricey sushi dinners aren’t the only hazard to watch: “contamination is far more general,” she noted, with cooked fish and varieties other than tuna also presenting cause for concern, despite their other health benefits.

Want to estimate a safe level of fish to eat? The Environmental Working Group has compiled a list that warns women away from the most tainted fish and itemizes those that are safe to eat once a week or more often. Now we know men and children should heed this advice as well.

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