Toxic Fish? Disclose it!
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
It has long been known that the pollution in rivers, lakes and the oceans ends up in the flesh of the fish we eat. Recent warnings of high amounts of mercury in some fish indicate the problem is getting ever worse. Among the fishes with high mercury content that are especially dangerous to young children and pregnant or nursing women are shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish. Albacore tuna, with more mercury than some other types of tuna, should be eaten in moderation, such as one serving per week, if at all.
Mercury and other toxic pollutants become more concentrated as fish eat other fish. Farmed fish such as salmon also get contaminated with chemicals that prevent the spread of diseases. For centuries people have been treating the planet's waters as dumps and sewers, pushing the pollution problem to the future. But the future is now. The vast oceans are a closed water system where pollution is accumulating much faster than nature can decontaminate it.
While we can work to reduce the pollution entering the earth's waters, we can also seek to limit the pollution at the points of sale. The problem is that we have no uniform law of the market. A free market has one of two market rules. One rule could be that a product can possibly be defective, dangerous, or ineffective, unless otherwise indicated on the label. The other rule is that all products are presumed to be safe and effective unless otherwise indicated on the label, and all known or suspected harmful effects must be disclosed.
Today, neither rule has been adopted by government. Some products have requirements to disclose some harmful effects or ingredients, while other products do not need to disclose known or suspected problems, while in still other cases the producer and seller are not allowed to inform the buyer of some benefits and ingredients. Instead of a uniform law of the market, we have legalized market chaos.
The best policy is a law of the market of presumed safety. Known and highly suspected defects, problems, harmful effects, and uncertainties about the product should be fully disclosed. For canned, bottled, and packaged goods, the disclosure should be on the container. For fish that is displayed and then wrapped, the sign should contain the disclosure, and then the wrapping should also have the disclosure. My local supermarket in California does have a sign by the fish warning of the mercury danger in the above-named fish, with instructions on how to get more information.
In some cases, the bad effects are numerous or complicated. Disclosures on containers and wrappings should state the most important problems, and then have a web site or telephone number where one can obtain more detailed information. Alternatively there can be literature near the product where the buyer can learn the details. For fish, the wrapper label could say 'contains toxic Mercury' and indicate where one can obtain more details. A warning sign by the fish could say, 'Warning: mercury can be harmful to young children and pregnant women.'
Of course the people in the fishing industry would not like this, just as farmers would not like their fruits and vegetables to be labeled, 'contains toxic pesticides that could damage your health.' Meat growers would not like labels that say, 'contains hormones and other chemicals that could damage your health.'
Besides health, methods of raising animals that involve cruel or painful conditions should be disclosed. Chicken growers would not like signs that say, 'These chickens were raised in cramped cages.' Meat sellers would be displeased with signs that say, 'these animals were raised in crowded rooms and fed growth-enhancing hormones to provide you with cheap meat.'
The price of meat today is relatively low because of mass production, which creates body mass with crowded animals fed chemicals to stimulate growth and inhibit diseases. In effect meat and fish are cheap because government subsidizes their production, by shifting the social cost from the sellers to the naive and ignorant buyers. The cost is their long-term health.
Perhaps also people are becoming fat not just because they eat too much but because growth-enhancing chemicals are being passed on from animals to people! Americans have long been rich enough to each too much, but the mass obesity problem is rather recent, perhaps tied to the growing use of hormones in animals. This is a hypothesis that needs further investigation.
There is political pressure to prevent such disclosures. The public could counter this with demands for full disclosure, but so far the public remains ignorant and apathetic. They think the government is keeping the food safe enough.
Consumers can take action to protect their health by buying safer products, such as grass-fed beef or free-range chicken or fish such as wild salmon that have fewer pollutants. Even organically-raised produce is not necessarily safe, but in a toxic world, we can try to minimize the damage.
Environmentalists should be working not just to reduce pollution but also for full disclosure at the points of sale. When consumers demand safer food, then producers will shift to meet that demand. A higher demand for food safety at the consumer end will in turn put pressure on governments to make polluters pay the social cost of their toxic dumping.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2004 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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