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Swordfish, shark, tuna need label

By Jennifer Henion

Triplicate staff writer

Don't expect to find cuts of tuna, swordfish or shark at Del Norte groceries in the near future.

A lawsuit by the California Attorney General's office alleges many groceries and restaurants are not warning people about the mercury content in these fishes before they sell them.

The complaint filed last week in San Francisco Superior Court cites Proposition 65, enacted in 1986, which requires businesses to provide clear and reasonable warnings before exposing people to known carcinogens and reproductive toxins.

Stores and restaurants found negligent could be fined $2,500 per day for each violation back to 1986.

Of the local grocery stores, Safeway is included in the suit, but so far Ray's Food Place and Shop Smart have not been mentioned. Kroger's, Albertson's, Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are also named in the complaint.

"Consumers deserve to know when they are being exposed to chemicals that can cause cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm," said state Attorney General Bill Lockyer.

Scared they may be drawn in to the legal wrangling, Ray's Food Place Meat Supervisor Duayne McKinney said the store has "no comment" about the suit, but said:

"We're looking into it and trying to figure out how we're supposed to follow Prop. 65. In the meantime, we are not going to sell tuna, swordfish or shark," McKinney said.

Shop Smart's meat manager Doris Love said the fish they sell comes prepackaged and she wasn't sure whether a warning of mercury presence was listed on the label or not.

"We don't have any right now, but I will pay attention next time it comes in," said Love.

Questions about the suit to the local Safeway store were referred to the Safeway headquarters. Calls to the headquarters were not returned.

The fact the some fish collect mercury has been know for more than a decade. The mercury occurs naturally in the environment, but also finds its way into the air through industrial manufacturing processes such as burning coal for power and the production of batteries. Mercury is found in the highest levels in deep water predator fish such as shark, ahi tuna, albacore tuna and swordfish.

"Fish absorb methylmercury from water as they eat aquatic organisms. Mercury is released into the air, then falls into surface water and ultimately accumulates in streams and oceans," said Tom Dresslar of Attorney General Lockyer's office.

Sampling for methyl mercury in fish from October 1992 through 1994 by the FDA show swordfish has the highest contamination rates with an average of 0.88 parts per million, then shark with 0.84 parts per million, then tuna with 0.38 parts per million.

FDA toxicologists conclude that people other than women of childbearing age should only eat seven ounces of fish containing 1 part per million of methylmercury per week.

Women of childbearing age and young children are considered especially susceptible to medical problems caused by mercury consumption.

Pregnant women have been advised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 2001 not to eat fish containing mercury.

And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends not eating more than 12 ounces of fish per week.

"Fish such as lake trout, salmon and bass are less likely to contain harmful levels of mercury if they are small and young," said Dresslar.

The suit filed by the Attorney General comes on the heels of a testing regime by an environmental groups Turtle Island Restoration Network and the As You Sow Foundation.

The two groups tested samples of swordfish, tuna and shark sold in Red Lobster, Costco, Safeway and a long list of other retail stores in November 2002.

They turned over their data to Lockyer's office just before the complaint was filed.

Turtle Island Restoration Network spokesperson Doug Israel said longline fishing for swordfish kills the "critically endangered" leatherback turtle among other marine life.

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