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Last week was a good one for the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition. The Alexandria-based nonprofit grabbed headlines for producing the recommendations of a group of top medical minds on a high-profile health issue. The experts, who had partnered with the coalition, advised that pregnant women eat more seafood than the U.S. government recommends.
On one of its Web pages, the coalition includes a link to this Oct. 4 Washington Post story: “Mothers Again Urged to Eat Fish: Advisory at Odds With FDA Stance.”
Why link to the Post account?
Perhaps because the local paper of record didn’t bother detailing a prime funder of the project. The seafood industry, that is. The National Fisheries Institute paid $60,000 to Healthy Mothers for its work on the report, not to mention disbursements of $1,000 to each of the scientists to attend a symposium on the topic. There’s more to the corporate commingling: The fisheries institute uses Burson-Marsteller as its go-to PR agency, and a Burson-Marsteller staffer works as vice-chair of the Healthy Mothers coalition—though the staffer, Hampton Shaddock, was not “a part of any decisionmaking on the relationship,” according to coalition Executive Director Judy Meehan.
That those details never made it into the Post amounts to “just irresponsible and lazy reporting,” says Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group. “It reminds me of the way the media treated global warming…as though there was some legitimate controversy….Now we’ve got a controversy over whether women should eat heavily contaminated fish.”
The prevailing wisdom on fish-eating by pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers comes from the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency, which in 2004 issued guidance advising that such women eat a maximum of 12 ounces per week of fish and shellfish “that are lower in mercury,” including shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish. Yummy, high-mercury fish—shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish—land on the government’s prohibited-species list. A February 2007 article in the Lancet, on the other hand, concluded that “higher maternal fish consumption results in children showing better neurological function than children whose mothers ate low amounts or no fish during pregnancy.”
Likewise, the Healthy Mothers advisory recommended that mothers eat “a minimum of 12 ounces per week of fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel, and can do so safely.” The project emphasized the importance of fish in supplying so-called “long-chain” omega-3 fatty acids, which are critical to fetal brain development.
The Post’s take on the matter came off the desk of Sally Squires, a foodie who does the paper’s nationally syndicated Lean Plate Club column. Squires was among the first—if not the first—reporters to nail the story, a point that was clear to anyone who read the lede of the Oct. 4 piece: “Pregnant and breast-feeding women should eat at least 12 ounces of fish and seafood per week to ensure their babies’ optimal brain development, a coalition of top scientists from private groups and federal agencies plans to declare today in a public advisory…” (Emphasis added.)
Squires thus delivered the story before the press conference, though she claims that the Post got the same treatment as other outlets. Editors were proud enough of Squires’ advisory preview that they placed it on A1, above the fold in a busy Thursday edition. Sure, the piece addressed the scientific issues and the confusion that women feel on fish intake. But the public would have to wait for later-breaking reports from other news providers—including Bloomberg News, NPR, and CBS—to hear the caveat emptor qualifiers so missing from the Post story.
Whatever her access, Squires says she hammered at the coalition’s funding from the start. “The question of backing from the National Fisheries Institute is one of the first questions that I asked of National Healthy Mothers/Healthy Babies,” writes Squires via e-mail. That line of inquiry, writes Squires, “was one of those things that dropped out of the daily story”—primarily because the $60,000 in funding to the Healthy Mothers group was for dissemination of the information, not for its generation.
OK, but what about the symposium money? Squires writes that she’s still looking into whether payments went to the scientists.
Barbara Luke, professor of Nursing, Obstetrics and Pediatrics at the University of Miami, worked on the panel and received the nominal funding from the seafood people. Of her profession, she says, “We get asked to do a lot of things, and usually we say no.” This project, she insists, was different. “People want to put their name to the cause,” she says. “But fish is fish. It’s not like we’re backing Hormel beef.”
And “pretty typical” is how coalition chief Meehan describes her group’s financial involvement with the fisheries group. “Studies are saying that pregnant women are eating less fish,” says Meehan. “That’s where we came along.”
Though Meehan is clearly pleased with her group’s prominence in the Post’s coverage, she does have a bone to pick. Squires’ story says that the scientists come from “private groups and federal agencies.” That’s not true: None of them come from the federal government, and the statement implies that the coalition’s member organizations—108 groups—supplied the research and signed off on the project.
In fact, the coalition’s member entities didn’t participate in any endorsement process—a point that Meehan says her group made to the Post. Instead, says Meehan, the coalition’s leadership merely partnered with a group of scientists who were already looking into this fish-mercury question. Thanks to the implication in the Post story, some of Meehan’s coalition members got hit with queries about whether they supported the research. In response to the confusion, the March of Dimes, a Healthy Mothers coalition member, issued a statement on Oct. 10 stating, “March of Dimes Position on Seafood Unchanged.”
“Our membership’s involvement in this was misrepresented,” says Meehan. “We have contacted the Post about the error.”
Squires denies any mistake, and the Post hasn’t run a correction.