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State of California Sues Tuna Industry

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Yesterday, the California Attorney General sued three of the biggest canned tuna companies under Proposition 65, California’s consumer right-to-know law. The lawsuit was filed in the San Francisco Superior Court lawsuit against Tri-Union Seafoods, maker of Chicken of the Sea; Del Monte Foods, maker of Starkist; and Bumble Bee Seafoods, maker of Bumble Bee.

“It’s an outrage that companies would continue to endanger their customers from mercury poisoning by not labeling their products” says Andy Peri, Marine Species Analyst for the Sea Turtle Restoration Project. “For years, the tuna industry has been utterly defiant in the face of California law”.

This suit follows a similar suit filed against California grocers last year. After the Sea Turtle Restoration Project filed a notice of intent to sue in December 2002, the California Attorney General filed suit against California grocers for failing to warn customers of the presence of mercury in fish. Settlement talks on this case have recently broke down, and litigation continues against California grocers which could result in fines exceeding $1 million.

In February 2003, Del Monte Corporation, owner of Starkist Seafood and one of the tuna industry leaders, advised grocers in a letter to “not place any warnings in or around canned tuna” and “not use any warning that references canned tuna”. Del Monte indicated in that same letter that if grocers were sued, Del Monte Corporation would cover any legal costs grocers might incur.

California stores have taken Del Monte’s advice to heart by not posting signs in the canned tuna sections of stores. An ongoing volunteer survey of grocery stores being conducted by the Sea Turtle Restoration Project shows that over 92% of California grocers are failing to post warning signs in their canned fish sections with Albertson’s, Safeway and Kroger-owned stores being the worst.

“Canned tuna is widely consumed in the US and is threatening the health of children nationwide” say Peri. One can of albacore tuna per week contains enough mercury to push a 120 pound mother to 160% of the level considered safe by the EPA. That same amount of tuna consumed by a 50-pound child would put her at 380% of that safe level. Consumers can gauge their own levels of exposure from eating seafood using FDA data by visiting www.gotmercury.org

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin for people of both genders and of all ages but is particularly harmful to developing fetuses and children. Mercury, at relatively low exposure levels, can cause hair loss, low birth weight and a wide range of neurological problems including impaired motor skills, learning disabilities, tremors and memory loss.

Because of the widely recognized dangers of mercury in seafood, the US Food and Drug Administration advises children and women of child-bearing age to avoid swordfish, shark and tuna and limit their consumption of canned albacore tuna. Furthermore, the American Medical Association in a resolution passed in May of 2003, called for labeling of packaged and canned fish that contain mercury.

The Sea Turtle Restoration Project and GotMercury.org are projects of the Turtle Island Restoration Network, which is concerned with the link between ocean conservation, sustainable fishing and public health.