Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer sued the nation's three largest producers of canned tuna Monday, accusing them of failing to warn consumers about dangerous levels of mercury in their albacore and light tuna.
Lockyer said Tri-Union Seafoods (which makes Chicken of the Sea), Del Monte (which makes Starkist) and Bumble Bee Seafoods have failed to provide the warnings required under Proposition 65, the landmark toxics-control initiative enacted by California voters in 1986.
Responding to the suit, the U.S. Tuna Foundation, an organization representing the industry, said that canned albacore and light tuna are safe, and that the industry is in full compliance with the law.
The Environmental Protection Agency contends that 630,000 of the approximately 4 million babies born annually in the United States may be exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in the womb, according to analyses made public in February. The EPA said the primary source of the newborns' exposure to mercury is the fish and shellfish eaten by their mothers.
Studies have shown that mercury can impair children's motor functions, learning capacity, vision and memory, and can cause other symptoms related to neurological damage. Mercury poses a lesser health risk for adults.
Last year, data from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 8% of women of childbearing age had mercury levels higher than 5.8 parts per billion. The EPA believes the safe level for mercury in a pregnant woman's blood is about 3.5 parts per billion.
Proposition 65 requires businesses to provide "clear and reasonable" warnings before exposing people to known reproductive toxins.
Although he did not cite figures, Lockyer said tests by his office show that mercury levels in both canned albacore and canned light tuna exceed the exposure threshold that triggers the warning requirement, with albacore containing "significantly" more mercury than light tuna.
Lockyer's suit asks that companies be prohibited from selling their canned albacore and light tuna without warning signs posted in grocery aisles or warning labels placed on cans. The suit also seeks damages for violations of Proposition 65 and the state's Unfair Competition Law.
"This is a crucial public health issue," Lockyer said. "We're not trying to eliminate tuna from people's diets. We're trying to enforce the law and protect the health and safety of California women and children."
Lockyer acknowledged that fish and seafood are important sources of nutrients and can be key components of a balanced diet. But last March, the EPA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advised young children and pregnant and nursing women to limit their consumption of canned albacore to six ounces per week.
The tuna foundation said Monday that Lockyer's suit "is not grounded in science and will needlessly scare consumers away from affordable foods that are good for them." The industry argues that Proposition 65 does not apply to substances derived from natural sources, such as mercury in fish. "In the case of canned tuna and most other types of ocean fish and seafood, the minute amounts of mercury come from underwater volcanic activity," the foundation said.
Lockyer's suit was filed in San Francisco Superior Court. He said he would ask that his action be combined with a similar suit filed by the Public Media Center.