No Tuna? Should Tuna Get Canned from School Lunch Menus? Mercury Policy Project Reveals New Findings

Albacore Tuna Can Triple a Child's Exposure to Mercury

By Judy Feldman on September 21, 2012 2:32 PM EDT

Tuna Salad
Should We Scrap Tuna from School Lunch Menus? (Photo: Wiki Commons)

The Mercury Policy Project of Montpelier, Vermont has just announced new findings, and is now encouraging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to scrap tuna from school lunch menus,  according to USANews Today. They conducted a recent test and study that involved about 60 sample cans of tunas, sold to schools in 11 separate states, which were found to have extremely varying amounts of mercury - some of which were far above federal guidelines.

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"On any given day in a given school, children eating the same meal could get mercury doses that vary by tenfold," just because of the variability of the chunk of meat in the packet," said  Edward Groth, author of the report, in a prepared statement released Wednesday. The report was sponsored by several groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Currently, The Environmental Protection Agency suggests that the maximum acceptable dose for methylmercury is one-tenth of a microgram per kilogram of an individual's body weight. According to the study just released by Mercury Policy Project, the average methylmercury content ranged from 0.02 to 0.64 parts per million in light tuna, and between 0.19 and 1.27 parts per million in albacore tuna.

And, as reported by USA Today, many EPA scientists say that even the tiniest levels of methylmercury have been tied to learning disabilites as well as developmental delays. 

According to WXYZ,  "Many researchers claim children should never even eat albacore tuna at all, because they believe the risk of mercury exposure far outweighs any potential nutritional benefits."

Another new Canadian study, just released on September 21st, also has found that  young children exposed to certain heavy metals [such as mercury and lead] are considered to be at higher risk for problems with attention and behavior later in life, that  kids with mercury poisoning have shown they have trouble with language skills, attention, and coordination, as well as other problems, and lead affects learning and memory. (To read more about the Canadian study. and the  mercury to ADHD links, here, at WebMD Health News.

Timing, and Politics also have a part to play.  This call to phase out tuna from school lunches comes at a crucial time not only for tuna, for food prices, but also for school lunches, period. And there's politics, to boot. A current controversy is on-going to prevent the full implementation of "new" USDA school lunch requirements  -- announced in January and the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in more than 15 years -- that would - in addition to offering less sodium and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables - impose age-aligned calorie maximums on meals. (Reps. Steve King (R-Iowa) and Tim Huelskamp (R-Kansas) have just introduced legislation that would repeal the calorie limits.)

As reported by the Huffingtonpost, last January, it was to have been a good move for menus for school lunches, and would bring down sodium over the next ten years. First lady Michelle Obama and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had announced the new guidelines. She was also joined by celebrity chef Rachael Ray. The concensus was agreed:  youngsters will learn better if they don't have growling stomachs at school.

The controversy about tuna goes beyond light or dark, or albacore or not. Back in 2004, the EPA and the FDA said that women who are pregnant or might be pregnant can eat up to two meals, or 12 ounces, of fish and shellfish a week. Children should eat "smaller portions," the guidelines said. But since then,  some studies indicate it may even be too high. "Our research suggests that the limit should be decreased by 50%," reportedly Philippe Grandjean, a professor of environmental studies at Harvard University who studies mercury in seafood, has said. "If anything, [the Mercury Project] report underestimates the risks associated with regular tuna intake."

However, others disagree. For example, according to USA Today, scientists such as Michael Crawford have provided years of evidence that fatty acids available in fish are critical to a child's cognitive functions. His work, and that of others, has shown that children lacking these essential fatty acids will negatively affect children's behavior and increase risk of mental health issues.

Plus, Gavin Gibbons of the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood industry group in McLean, Va., reminds the public that the current federal dietary guidelines actually recommend Americans eat seafood twice a week, that seafood is a healthy protein with omega-3 fatty acids that benefit metabolism as well as brain function and development. "To suggest we're eating too much is almost comical," he told USA Today.

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