Grocers get mixed reviews for their mercury warnings

Safeway among three chains to post placards

Posted: Thursday, June 22, 2006

Because Safeway put up placards about methylmercury contamination in seafood at its stores around the country - including in Juneau - the grocer was one of three major U.S. chains that received kudos this week from the international environmental group Oceana.

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But two other grocery chains operating in Juneau - Costco and Fred Meyer - are on Oceana's "red list" because they did not agree to the group's request to post the information for their customers.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning in 2004 for women of childbearing age and children to avoid certain fish species with high methylmercury content. The heavy-metal compound accumulates in the body and federal scientific studies have shown it can harm the neurological development of fetuses and young children.

Grocery stores are required to post the product warnings under state law only in California. Oceana, which runs its Pacific regional office in Juneau, has lobbied grocery chains nationwide to post signs explaining the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's mercury warning, said Oceana's Pacific vice president, Jim Ayers.

Green List

(stores that are posting methylmercury warnings)




Pak'n Save Foods




Tom thumb


Whole Foods

Wild Oats

Red List

(a sampling of more than 50 stores that did not agree to requests to post mercury warnings)


Fred Meyer



Sam's Club

Trader Joe's



It's important to eat healthful seafood, but consumers have "the right to know" about the mercury content of their fish, Ayers said.

So far, Safeway, Wild Oats and Whole Foods are the only nationwide chains to post the voluntary signs.

The FDA warning applies only to certain fish species with a high methylmercury content - king mackerel, tilefish, swordfish and shark. The agency also suggests that women of childbearing age limit their consumption of albacore tuna.

Methylmercury is a heavy-metal compound that forms in the aquatic environment and accumulates in the food chain. It has natural sources but is also tied to industrial air emissions, particularly from coal-burning power plants.

Safeway posted its methylmercury signs last year before receiving initial contact from Oceana.

"We've gone the extra mile and if it puts us on a green list, that's a good thing," said Brian Dowling, a Safeway spokesman.

Safeway sells only one of the species affected by the FDA warning: swordfish. The other species "aren't big sellers ... anyway," Dowling said.

Costco spokesman Jeff Lyons said Wednesday the wholesaler didn't post the methylmercury signs because it does not sell any of the species targeted by FDA's warning. Costco suspended swordfish sales roughly five years ago when its own lab tests failed to indicate a pristine source of swordfish, Lyons said.

Fred Meyer spokeswoman Melinda Merrill said Wednesday she was unable to ascertain whether Fred Meyer had received Oceana's request for the mercury warning signs. Merrill said she intended to "contact (Oceana) to find out who they contacted and when."

• Elizabeth Bluemink can be reached at

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