Monday, October 15, 2007

WaPo gets fish-slapped

The Washington Post's story on the recommendations from a group with ties to the fish industry that mothers should eat more fish --contradicting the advice from the FDA and EPA-- took a beating last week.

The hoopla over the recommendations is important because of concerns mercury contamination in fish could lead to neurological problems in developing fetuses. To make the issue more complicated, the FDA barely monitors mercury levels in fish. And that's alarming, considering the recent food contamination issues that show quite clearly that even when the FDA is supposed to be safeguarding the food supply, the agency drops the ball.

In the front-page story, Washington Post reporter Sally Squires detailed the fish-eating recommendations from the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition. But Squires didn't disclose the fact that, according to The Washington City Paper's Erik Wemple, the group receives funding from The National Fisheries Institute, a group that describes itself as "the nation’s leading advocacy organization for the seafood industry. Its member companies represent every element of the industry from the fishing vessels at sea to the national seafood restaurant chains."

Wemple writes: "The National Fisheries Institute paid $60,000 to Healthy Mothers for its work on the report, not to mention disbursements of $1,000 to each of the scientists to attend a symposium on the topic. There’s more to the corporate commingling: The fisheries institute uses Burson-Marsteller as its go-to PR agency, and a Burson-Marsteller staffer works as vice-chair of the Healthy Mothers coalition—though the staffer, Hampton Shaddock, was not “a part of any decisionmaking on the relationship,” according to coalition Executive Director Judy Meehan."

Squires attempts to add credibility to the recommendations from the Healthy Mothers group by saying its members include "the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention."

That may be true, but neither the NICHHD nor the CDC want to be associated with these fish-industry supported recommendations. NICHHD director Duane Alexander and CDC chief science officer Tanja Popovic made the point quite clearly in a letter to the WaPo editor, published Saturday.

"The recommendation by the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition that pregnant women consume more fish [front page, Oct. 4] has not been endorsed by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the Health Resources and Services Administration," Alexander and Popovic write in their brief but adamant letter. "The three agencies, all within the Department of Health and Human Services, were not participants in the formulation of this recommendation, learned about it only after it was announced, have not had the opportunity to review the data on which it was based and therefore cannot support it."

Alexander and Popovic further add, "We are not aware at this time of any new evidence sufficient to change the current guidelines set forth by the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, that pregnant women should consume no more than 12 ounces of fish per week. We continue to support those guidelines."

Squires might've learned of both NICHHD's and CDC's position had she bothered to contact them for her story. Actually, she might've done well to contact anybody who has reservations about the potential complications of mothers consuming more fish to provide a more balanced story to her readers. As it is the story is top-heavy with quotes from people supporting the increased fish consumption recommendations, and essentially reads like a pro-fish industry commercial, rather than what it actually is: a front page story from one of America's biggest newspapers.

I would expect better from both WaPo reporters and editors on a story as complex and important as fish consumption and mercury toxicity to developing babies. The paper may need to revise its reporting standards if an article this poor meets the criteria for page 1 billing.

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