Tuna sushi. Photo by <a href="http://flickr.com/photos/ulteriorepicure/119425113/">ulterior epicure</a> (<a href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/deed.en">CC</a>).
Tuna sushi. Photo by ulterior epicure (CC).

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Trouble with Tuna

Feb 19, 2008

Today's globalization may be causing more stress to our planet than we realize, and the food industry is just one example.

As a gourmet specialty foods purveyor in Manhattan, my job is to source quality products for the city's top chefs. In the course of my work I have seen opposite worlds in the food industry—everything from clean organic husbandry to mass-produced commodity meats. Anyone who witnesses the latter would no doubt have a hard time shopping for meats at their local supermarkets.

Take your pick—chicken, beef, pork, vegetables, fruits, and seafood have all been labeled precautionary at one point or another. Whether it is pesticides in fruits and vegetables, or growth hormones pumped into poultry, or antibiotics administered to cattle to prevent illness, questions remain: How did we get here? Who is to blame?

I am genuinely worried about our food sources and even more alarmed by the direction we're heading. We are at a breaking point where pointing the finger at farmers isn't good enough. We need to point the finger at ourselves and change our lifestyles, priorities, and understanding of survival in order to salvage our existence.

It's obvious that a sense of moral obligation to the world is lacking. Corners are cut in hopes of making an extra buck, and in doing so we jeopardize ourselves. Much has changed in the past 50 years in the United States, but I am not sure we can continue to lead the world in innovation and prosperity. As a nation, we have lost that goal of creating a better world. A mentality of asking what you can do for your country has morphed into "show me the money."

A few weeks ago, Marian Burros whipped up an article for the New York Times titled, "High Mercury Levels Are Found in Tuna Sushi." The article singled out some of the city's highest-profile sushi restaurants, charging them with serving unsafe tuna. Naturally, this threw the city into an unfeeding frenzy. Many readers overreacted, deciding to boycott tuna and sushi restaurants altogether. As a result, sales at sushi restaurants have dropped in the past several weeks.

Tuna was the topic of every restaurant's service meetings for a week following the article's publication—bluefin, yellowfin, and bigeye. Restaurant owners, chefs, and food purveyors and vendors worked without rest to put out the flames. But no one came up with anything more than what we knew already—namely that eating about six pieces of bluefin tuna per week with mercury concentration up to 0.5 parts per million is safe and any more than that is unsafe, according to one health agency. The Food and Drug Administration can take tuna off the market at a concentration of one part per million.

The Japanese live with the understanding that large fish near the top of the food chain accumulate higher amounts of mercury, and that doesn't stop them from consuming more bluefin tuna than anybody else on the planet. In addition to domestic catches, Japan imports tuna from around the globe and keeps more than 60,000 tons of tuna frozen at minus 75°F—what many call Japan's strategic tuna reserve.

When it comes to mercury in fish, it's not whether to eat tuna but what we've done to the tuna that should be debated.

The mercury found in tuna comes primarily from coal-fired power plants and the chemical industry. Meanwhile, we have taken for granted our right to clean, safe food. It only takes a little bit of education and some determination to make our demands heard. It's your life and your health, after all. If journalists want to inform us of dangers, they should shine a light on the source of the problems.

Kao is a gourmet specialty foods purveyor in New York City.

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