Something fishy about that food pyramid

Thanks to Bush administration oversight, it's all the mercury you can eat!

Published April 25, 2005 5:45PM (EDT)

Whoops. There's a toxin in the new food pyramid.

Apparently, the United States Department of Agriculture, which released the pyramid last week, forgot that women of child-bearing age and young children aren't ever supposed to eat swordfish and king mackerel, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's recommendations. (Nursing moms, would-be moms and kids are supposed to limit their diet of tuna, too.)

Those fish are among those most contaminated with mercury, a pollutant released from coal-fired power plants -- which the Bush administration has failed to crack down on. According to E.P.A. research, some 600,000 U.S. newborns, each year, are at risk for learning disorders and behavioral problems because of their exposure to the neurotoxin in the womb.

The USDA's new Web site ignores all these mercury warnings, recommending the very fish most likely to contain high levels of mercury. "Not only does the new food pyramid shirk away from telling the public which unhealthy foods to avoid," said David Wallinga, director of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's Food and Health Program in Minneapolis, "it actually tells people to eat fish that other federal agencies warn are too contaminated with mercury to eat."

Dr. Wallinga calculated that a single 6 ounce serving of swordfish, which is among the recommended daily allowances on for an active 35 year-old woman, contains 28 times what the E.P.A. says is the maximum, safe, daily amount of methylmercury, and four times more than the maximum amount that's acceptable for an entire week.

No wonder the public is confused about which fish is OK for women and kids to eat, and which they should avoid. Right now, the fed's new food pyramid -- only the government's biggest vehicle for communicating information about good nutrition -- leads health-conscious citizens right into the toxic soup.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

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