Michelle Obama is NOT Feeding Mercury-Laden Fish to Maine Students

While I almost always appreciate media outlets and individuals sharing my work, it is sometimes frustrating when a data-driven piece of mine is co-opted to serve someone else’s agenda–especially when the data does not support said agenda.

This Really Isn’t about Michelle Obama

Several outlets are covering my Discover Magazine article on mercury concentrations in dogfish, and a handful are suggesting it supports their side of the culture wars debate centered around Michelle Obama and her anti-obesity initiative Let’s Move. While my article “The Mercury-Laden Fish Floated for School Lunches” may peripherally inform that debate in some limited way, neither my extensive research nor the data presented in the article support several of the claims being made.

Last Resistance‘s Dave Jolly, in a piece titled “Michelle Obama’s Healthy Lunch Program is Feeding Mercury Laden Fish to Maine Students”, epitomizes that to which I am referring. First off, it’s completely untrue to say, as Jolly does, that “dogfish and redfish are being sold under the government’s Section 32 program which in turn provides them the National School Lunch Program and other federal programs such as prisons and food kitchens.”

My article looks at a petition by New England lawmakers aimed at getting the USDA to purchase dogfish under Section 32 authority. While the USDA is still evaluating the request (which is troubling to me in light of the data I present in my article), let me be clear: no dogfish has been purchased by the government nor has any dogfish entered any entitlement food program, including the National School Lunch Program.

Dave Jolly's Article in Last Resistance

Local Foods Movement Rather than Top-Down Washington Mandate

Blair Currier, Portland Public Schools’ local food specialist, prepares a pan of redfish at the district’s central kitchen. Photo by Ben McCanna

While not part of the USDA’s Section 32 commodity program, it’s true that Portland Public Schools (PPS) are serving locally-landed fish to students. Again, Jolly lumps this into the culture wars debate, but the PPS program has little if anything to do with any top-down mandate from Washington. In fact, the PPS program is better placed within the context of the local foods movement (and more specifically the farm-to-school movement). Called Buy Local Day, PPS’s initiative to get local foods into school cafeterias is setting PPS up to be a leader nationwide. Last year the district served 50,000 pounds of local produce and 15,000 pounds of local meats, spending upwards of 10% of its budget locally. PPS is looking to double those numbers in 2014, and that’s a good thing, I think.

From reading Jolly’s piece, one may have the impression that PPS has been serving up dogfish on a regular basis. That is also not the case. What actually happened is that PPS’s local fish vendor sent PPS a sample of dogfish mixed in with a shipment of redfish, and PPS kitchen employees prepared them both the same way. PPS has not added dogfish to the regular menu.

Are “Trash Fish” Really Trashy?

Jolly also seems hung up on the fact that the kids at PPS are being served so-called “trash fish.” Jolly writes:

Schools in Maine have turned to serving fish at least two or more times a month as a healthy choice and to help out local fisherman [sic]…. The fish of choice is cod or haddock, but these species have been dwindling in numbers and the catch limits are being steadily reduced, bit by bit. Instead of the premium fish, fisherman [sic] have been catching more fish that are referred to by fisherman [sic] as ‘trash fish’ which are often heavily laden with mercury. Among the trash fish are redfish and Atlantic spiny dogfish.

Chef’s Collaborative Has Led the Way with Their Wildly Successful “Trash Fish Dinners”

For those of you who have not read my article, it begins with an anecdote from the PPS Central Kitchen, where Acadian redfish is being prepared. I need to make it clear that my discussion is limited to only PPS, not “schools in Maine” as a whole. It’s true, as Jolly indicates, that redfish is frequently referred to as a “trash fish,” but I think Jolly gets it wrong framing that as a negative. Building markets for “trash fish” is both good for fisheries that have been overfished and for the commercial fishing industry that is struggling under greatly reduced quotas for some of the better known species like cod.

Perhaps nomenclature is the problem here, as “trash fish” may have negative connotations for many readers. I tried to explain this in my article, but let me do it again here: At its most elemental, “trash fish” are simply under-appreciated and underutilized species that chefs are proving can be as delicious as the species with which many seafood consumers are more familiar. Numerous organizations like the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the Chef’s Collaborative are working hard to introduce diners at restaurants to “trash fish,” and other programs are looking to build markets by getting some of these species into institutional programs that can help develop larger and more consistent markets than many restaurants are able to do.

Trash Fish and Mercury

It is untrue to say, as Jolly did, that these underutilized and under-appreciated species “are often heavily laden with mercury.” Yes, this is a concern with dogfish, especially when school lunches are concerned, but redfish and many of the other species currently being promoted as “trash fish” throughout New England and nationwide are low in mercury and very good alternatives to some of the more familiar species that have been overfished.

Jolly says “The mercury levels in redfish…have been found to be 0.5 parts per million and higher,” which does not square with any data with which I’m familiar. While it would not surprise me if an aberrant sample of Acadian redfish in a study showed a mercury concentration of 0.50 ppm, I have seen no data to support a claim that the mean ppm for redfish is high enough to put it anywhere close to dogfish or other species about which we should have a legitimate, data-based concern.

Can Dogfish Actually Be Considered a Good Choice?

Mercury Concentrations in Fish, FDA Data (Courtesy of Discover Magazine)

Mercury Concentrations in Fish, FDA Data (Courtesy of Discover Magazine)

When it comes to dogfish and the relatively high mercury concentrations found to be associated with the small shark in the latest study (as well as in earlier studies referenced in my article), I think it’s pretty clear dogfish is a poor choice for the National School Lunch Program. It is not so clear to me, however, that dogfish is categorically a bad choice. As long as our society continues to value high mercury species about which there are serious sustainability concerns, then I think dogfish has a place on menus and at the fish mongers’.

In fact, when properly identified to an informed adult, dogfish is in many ways a better choice than bluefin tuna or swordfish. Both of those other species are also high in mercury and come from fisheries in which there are sustainability concerns.

I think it’s important to accept some personal responsibility when it comes to making decisions about what we choose to eat and what we choose not to eat. It’s particularly important to remember that not all sustainable choices are healthy and not all healthy choices are sustainable. For those interested in finding the sweet spot between sustainability and health, you may want to check out Seafood Watch’s Super Green List. In the meantime, please feel free to share my Discover Magazine article so we can be sure the most data-centered, accurate information is being disseminated without the burden of political agendas.



About Ret Talbot

Ret Talbot is a freelance writer who covers fisheries at the intersection of science and sustainability. His work has appeared in publications such as National Geographic, Mongabay, Discover Magazine, Ocean Geographic and Coral Magazine. He lives on the coast of Maine with his wife, scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.
This entry was posted in Chef's Collaborative, Groundfishing, Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), Human Health, Maine Fisheries, Mercury, Northeast Fisheries and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Michelle Obama is NOT Feeding Mercury-Laden Fish to Maine Students

  1. Pingback: Adventures in Dogfish – Chefs Who Love the Dog Part I | Good Catch Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s