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Tuna Meltdown
by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman
May 31, 2004

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A family doctor friend of ours was irate. For the past two years, he's been pushing a simple message -- a healthy diet combined with regular exercise helps prevent disease.

But he is up against a corporate army that undercuts this simple message almost every day -- from drug reps pushing unnecessary or harmful drugs, to junk food companies pushing a high-sugar high-fat diet, to the entire entertainment industry that induces the population at large to sink into its collective barco lounger.

Sometimes he gets angry. Sometimes he shrugs it off and moves on.

This week, he was angry.

"Look at this," he said. "Just look at this."

He was pointing to a publication that was sent to his office.

It is a glossy 243-page magazine titled "Family Doctor: Your Essential Guide to Health and Wellbeing."

It was published by the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP). It was sent to the offices of all 50,000 family doctors in the country, and the idea was that the docs would put it in their waiting rooms -- to give patients tips on how to stay healthy.

You open the "Essential Guide to Health and Wellbeing" and there, on page two and three, is a glossy color ad from our junk food pusher of choice, McDonald's, pushing chocolate milk, chocolate pudding, and apples -- to be dipped in "a delicious caramel dip."

These are some of the healthy choices that McDonald's is pushing in a new ad campaign to counter growing criticism, from doctors, patients and now lawyers, that McD's -- with its fat-drenched french fries and double cheeseburgers -- is fueling an obesity crisis that is threatening the lives of millions.

The AAFP publication is marinated in advertisements from junk food companies, from McDonald's, to Kraft (makers of Oreo cookies), to Dr. Pepper.

But the ad that caused our doctor friend's blood pressure to shoot up is on page 152, across from a chapter on "Pregnancy and Newborn."

The ad is titled "For Pregnant & Nursing Women: The Benefits of Eating Canned Tuna Are No Fish Tale."

The ad features the picture of a young and very pregnant woman biting into a very large tuna fish sandwich. The ad is sponsored by Bumble Bee, Chicken of the Sea and StarKist.

Now, here's the thing about tuna fish -- pregnant woman shouldn't be eating tuna fish. Tuna fish is high in mercury. Mercury is toxic to the developing brain and nervous system, and it can have permanent effects on intelligence, speech and motor development of children after they are born.

Jane Houlihan is the director of research at the Environmental Working Group. She has studied the issue of tuna fish and mercury and was not happy to hear about the new ad campaign or that the American Academy of Family Physicians is running the ad.

Houlihan said that it "borders on unethical to recommend that pregnant women eat canned tuna, a food that contains enough mercury that it poses potential harm to a baby's brain."

"The ad mentions all of the benefits of eating fish without mentioning the fairly high levels of mercury in canned tuna," she said.  "I agree with everything in the ad about the benefits of the nutrients in fish. But I disagree with the kind of fish that they are recommending that pregnant women eat. Compared to other kinds of seafood -- flounder, haddock – canned tuna is not a fish that pregnant women should be eating regularly."

Houlihan said that an association representing family doctors "shouldn't be part of recommending that pregnant women eat lots of canned tuna – that could be detrimental to the health of their patients."

We called on Dr. Michael Fleming, the president of American Academy of Family Physicians to make sure we weren't hallucinating.

Dr. Fleming confirmed that the Academy had published the magazine and the ads were real. He even defended them.

Would you allow tobacco companies to take out ads in the magazine?

No, he said.

Well then -- why McDonalds?

"The fact that these ads are there doesn't imply any endorsement."

How much did McDonald's pay for the two-page ad up front?

"We don't know," Dr. Fleming said. "We paid a custom publisher to publish the magazine. We don't know how much was paid for the ads."

Dr. Fleming estimates that the AAFP made over $100,000 from the magazine's ad revenues.

He said that all ads were reviewed for scientific accuracy and taste and that a few ads were rejected.

He said he would have rejected a McDonald's ad showing a customer biting into a cheeseburger.

But what about the McDonald's ad featuring chocolate milk and chocolate pudding as a healthy alternative?

"Chocolate milk is a healthy food," Dr. Fleming says. "Children like chocolate milk."

What about the sugar?

"If I a had a choice between a Coca-cola and chocolate milk, I would go with chocolate milk every time," he says.

It is becoming clear to us that Dr. Fleming is a touch behind the learning curve when it comes to nutrition and health.

But he cinches the deal when we ask about the tuna ad.

"First of all, the pregnant woman in the ad is not eating a big hunk of tuna, she's eating a tuna fish sandwich," Dr. Fleming says.

"We don't have data that says women shouldn't be eating tuna," Dr. Fleming says. "There is no official recommendation anywhere that pregnant women shouldn't eat tuna fish."

Environmental Working Group's Jane Houlihan disagrees. Earlier this year, her group obtained FDA documents showing that canned albacore, known as white tuna, had mercury levels twice as high as past FDA estimates for canned tuna, and three times the levels in light tuna. (See

But the FDA buckled under pressure from the tuna industry and refused to warn women about the dangers of eating tuna, and merely recommended that pregnant women limit all fish consumption to 12 ounces a week.

Houlihan says that back in 2001, her group conducted an investigation which showed that FDA officials had quashed findings of public opinion research on how to tell women about mercury contamination of seafood. The suppressing of the findings came after meetings with tuna industry lobbyists.

At the end of our interview with Dr. Fleming, he admits that some of his members have complained directly to him about the corporate ads that dominate the "Family Doctor" publication, but he won't say how many. He says that he might "tighten the criteria" for the ads a little bit.

But a little tinkering on the edges won't fix the problem that family doctors around the country are facing. They are fighting a losing battle against the corporate food conglomerates and an obesity epidemic that threatens the lives of millions of citizens.

Dr. Fleming should apologize for the publication of "Family Doctor," recall it, and resign.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter, Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor, They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press;


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