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On the radio ad the high-school-principal-like baritone booms: "According to the latest study, you should not eat any fish . . . and according to the latest study, you are a fish-faced idiot with an IQ lower than a tuna fish sandwich who will swallow the latest studyhype, line, and sinker . . . "
Part of notorious D.C. lobbyist Rick Berman's multimedia PR blitz, which includes an enormous midtown billboard and full-pagers in The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, this ad played over the holidays on New York, Boston, and D.C. radio stations and is slated for rebroadcast on four New York stations. More sea-blue, three-sided billboards reading "Hooked on Hype? Fishscam.com" are also planned for cities in Texas and on the West Coast in the next couple of weeks.
Berman's latest campaign is to convince the public that fears about toxic levels of mercury in tuna are wildly overblown. According to a spokesman at the Center for Consumer Freedom, of which Berman is the executive director (he also heads the PR firm Berman & Co.), overly cautious federal agencies are to blame for understating the amount of mercury-tainted fish a pregnant woman would have to eat before putting her fetus at risk for brain damage. For years, the FDA and the EPA have cautioned children, pregnant women, and those who might become pregnant to avoid eating more than about one serving of white albacore tuna a week and to abstain altogether from four types of large, predatory fish that test high in mercury.
The way CCF looks at it, not only are the feds erring ridiculously on the side of caution, but groups like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are using guidelines based on exploded numbers to champion their own agendas. This would include antipower plant campaigns (coal-burning plants are a major source of mercury contamination) and other agitation aimed at certain industries.
As for the FDA/EPA advisory, CCF "questions the wisdom of providing people with [consumption] limits without educating them about what those limits really mean," says CCF director of research David Martosko. What's more, he says, environmentalists have hijacked the discussion. They want people to be outraged about coal-burning plants, so they try and "reach people through their tuna."
It's true that the EPA mercury "reference dose"upon which advice on consumption is based is set 10 times higher than the EPA's Base Dose Lower Limit. The BDLL is the absolute lowest dosage of mercury researchers found that might cause nerve damage. That disparity reflects the standard practice, says EPA spokesperson Suzanne Ackerman. Researchers have to factor in a safety cushion to make up for the variations among different body types and chemistries.
But if you go to fishscam.com, a well-designed, content-heavy website, you'll find a mercury calculator that allows you to type in your body weight and click on the kind of fish you want to eat. The calculator does the math based upon the BDLL "to demonstrate the actual dose of mercury in tuna and other fish that's completely safe to eat." According to Berman, a 160-pound pregnant woman could safely eat up to 3.2 pounds of albacore tuna a week. That's a lot more than the FDA recommends.
The director of food policy at the nonprofit Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, Jean Halloran, calls the calculator, and CCF's campaign, disturbing. "What Berman is essentially saying is that there's no need to have a margin of error. It's really extraordinary and extremely irresponsible. Many people have educated themselves about this issue, but I'm concerned that less-educated women who don't realize he is industry-funded will take his advice."
Berman is right about one thing, though. Environmental activists are upset about how so much mercury got into the food chain in the first place, and while they say they are trying to make people aware of what types of fish are less safe, many of them are also fighting for things like stricter controls on coal-burning power plants. "Even if all mercury emissions were to stop today," says Michael Bender of the Vermont-based Mercury Policy Project, "it would take 15 to 20 years to get mercury back down to background levels."
So who is funding the fishscam .com campaign? The fishing or electric industries might seem like good guesses, but director of research Martosko says no, CCF is supported by private donors, along with restaurants and others in the food-and-beverage business. He won't get more specific, and he doesn't have to. CCF is a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and it doesn't have to report the names of the corporations that give it money.
However, three years back a former employee gave a list of corporations supporting CCF to advocates, a roster that included Monsanto, Tyson Foods, and Coca-Cola, says Sheldon Rampton of the Center for Media and Democracy. At the time, Berman called the list inaccurate, but he wouldn't be more specific. Why the secrecy? Berman and Martosko told the Voice that supporters don't want their names publicly associated with CCF for fear of retaliation from the "radical animal rights fringe." Still, it seems just as likely that corporations are loath to have their names linked with Berman's in-your-face tactics.
Critics say Berman's hyperbolic, aggressive attacks (he once told a reporter his strategy is to "shoot the messenger") only stir up animosity toward the PR industry and make his clients look like jerks. To be sure, Berman & Co. (which detractors say is virtually indistinguishable from CCF) tends to represent the most politically incorrect clients imaginableslaughterhouses, fast-food chains, and big-box storesagainst names more readily associated with good intentions.
"It's one thing for CCF to criticize us," says Lauren Sucher of the Environmental Working Group. "But are they also saying that doctors who give their time to Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have a biased agenda?" They are indeed. And don't get Berman started on Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
"I don't believe that having a glass of anything makes it unsafe to go behind the wheel," Berman says about his campaign against MADD's efforts to lower the legal blood alcohol limit. "Some people do. That's not a balanced perspective."
Berman is also fighting health advocates who want sodas and sugary snacks removed from schools, and just about anyone else who seeks to curtail what Berman calls personal freedom and responsibility in the name of the public good. His campaigns can seem so over-the-top that many activists laugh when his name comes up.
Still, it would be a mistake to underestimate the lobbyist, whose message may be hitting home with Congress. On December 15 the House Committee on Energy and Commerce approved HR 4167, a measure that would prevent states from placing food warnings stricter than federal warnings. If the National Food Uniformity Act is passed, supermarket shoppers in states like California that have for years required mercury warnings on fish will be affected.
Congressman Jerrold Nadler (DNew York) is not happy. "If we're not going to keep contaminants out of our food and water supplies-and this Republican Congress won't take action to do sothen the least we can do is to allow informative labeling. If there's mercury in your tuna, you have a right to know it."