California has sued three big canned tuna companies for not warning customers that they are exposed to mercury, state Attorney General Bill Lockyer said.
The civil suit, filed Monday in San Francisco Superior Court, named as defendants Del Monte Foods, maker of StarKist tuna; Bumble Bee Seafoods, maker of Bumble Bee tuna; and Tri-Union Seafoods, maker of Chicken of the Sea tuna.
The suit alleged that the companies violated state Proposition 65, an initiative approved by voters in 1986 that requires businesses to give “clear and reasonable” warnings before exposing people to “known carcinogens or reproductive toxins,” Lockyer said.
“Prenatal exposure to mercury can cause serious disabilities in infants and children,” he said. “We’re not trying to eliminate tuna from people’s diets. We’re trying to enforce the law and protect the health of California women and children,” Lockyer said in a statement.
Albacore vs. light tuna
Testing by the attorney general’s office showed the mercury levels in both canned albacore and light tuna were higher than an exposure threshold that requires a warning. The testing showed canned albacore contains “significantly higher amounts of mercury” than canned light tuna, Lockyer said.
He said methylmercury compounds have been listed under Prop. 65 as a cancer-causing chemical since 1996, and methylmercury has been listed as a known reproductive toxin since 1987.
Mercury and mercury compounds have been listed as known reproductive toxins since 1990, he said.
Prenatal and infant exposure to mercury can cause mental retardation, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness and developmental and learning disabilities, Lockyer said.
Industry says it's in compliance
Responding to Lockyer, the U.S. Tuna Foundation said canned tuna is safe and the industry is in “full compliance” with the California law.
David Burney, executive director of the industry group, said in a statement that the suit “is not grounded in science and will needlessly scare consumers away from affordable foods that are good for them. As health officials have consistently emphasized, fish and shellfish are an important part of a balanced diet.”
He said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency advised in March that pregnant and nursing women can safely eat up to 12 ounces a week of fish and shellfish, including canned light tuna, which are low in mercury, and up to 6 ounces a week of albacore tuna.
California’s Prop. 65 does not apply to substances derived from natural sources, such as mercury in fish, Burney said.
The complaint seeks to bar the companies from selling tuna in California without providing a warning, which could include signs posted in grocery store aisles or labels on the cans, Lockyer said.
It also asks penalties for violations of Prop. 65 and California’s unfair competition law. Under both laws, each defendant could face penalties up to $2,500 a day for each violation. The suit covers alleged violations of Prop. 65 back to 2000.
California last year sued grocery and restaurant chains for not posting mercury warnings for fresh or frozen shark, swordfish and tuna. Those cases are pending and have been coordinated in the San Francisco court.
Some grocers and restaurants have posted an interim warning developed by the attorney general’s office.
Health groups issue seafood guides
In a related action, Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals have released fish consumption guides that they said provide more cautious, comprehensive recommendations than the FDA and EPA guidelines.
The groups said the guides were not a solution, however.
“To thoroughly protect women and children, we must reduce these pollutants at their sources," said Karen Perry of Physicians for Social Responsibility. "Real solutions include a steep cut in mercury pollution from leading sources, particularly coal fired power plants. We must also clean up the Great Lakes, Hudson River, and other places contaminated with PCBs, and prevent similar chemicals from further polluting our waterways and fish.”
The guides are available at www.mercuryaction.org/fish.