High Levels Of Mercury Found In Sushi Tuna

The New York Times collected 20 tuna samples from high-end restaurants around NYC and tested them for mercury. The results were extremely troubling:

Recent laboratory tests found so much mercury in tuna sushi from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants that at most of them, a regular diet of six pieces a week would exceed the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Sushi from 5 of the 20 places had mercury levels so high that the Food and Drug Administration could take legal action to remove the fish from the market. The sushi was bought by The New York Times in October.

“No one should eat a meal of tuna with mercury levels like those found in the restaurant samples more than about once every three weeks,” said Dr. Michael Gochfeld, professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, N.J.

Dr. Gochfeld analyzed the sushi for The Times with Dr. Joanna Burger, professor of life sciences at Rutgers University. He is a former chairman of the New Jersey Mercury Task Force and also treats patients with mercury poisoning.

The levels of mercury found the the tuna were higher than expected, and much higher than levels found in typical canned tuna. Bluefin tuna, the type of fish that was served in the majority of the restaurants, is bigger and more expensive than the type found in supermarket canned tuna.

In general, tuna sushi from food stores was much lower in mercury. These findings reinforce results in other studies showing that more expensive tuna usually contains more mercury because it is more likely to come from a larger species, which accumulates mercury from the fish it eats. Mercury enters the environment as an industrial pollutant.

In the Times survey, 10 of the 13 restaurants said at least one of the two tuna samples bought was bluefin. (It is hard for anyone but experts to tell whether a piece of tuna sushi is bluefin by looking at it.)

By contrast, other species, like yellowfin and albacore, generally have much less mercury. Several of the stores in the Times sample said the tuna in their sushi was yellowfin.

“It is very likely bluefin will be included in next year’s testing,” Dr. Bolger of the F.D.A. said. “A couple of months ago F.D.A. became aware of bluefin tuna as a species Americans are eating.”

High Mercury Levels Are Found in Tuna Sushi [NYT]
(Photo:Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)


Edit Your Comment

  1. Adam Rock says:

    Awesome, I had some tuna sushi last night.

  2. TWSS says:

    I wonder if True World is responsible for distributing all that bluefin…


  3. kepler11 says:

    this is a good issue to talk about, and complicated because there are several kinds of tuna that you come across depending on if you’re having sushi for example, versus canned tuna in your sandwich. Also, it affects people differently, and specifically is a risk for pregnant women (and growing children), versus less (though still should be aware) for other adults.

    A brief search will guide you to pages with recommendations about what fish is relatively less risky. Although, often while some fish will have less risk from mercury, they might have more risk of PCBs, etc from farming. In general, smaller/younger fish have lower risk. See for example, this page:

  4. RottNDude says:

    I usually get albacore anyway… it tastes like ham. Mmmmm, ham.

    Toro, or “fatty tuna”, typically comes from Bluefin. It is also typically delicious and expensive which is a damn shame. I’ll eat it anyway.

  5. Craig says:

    In related news, NYC sushi eaters report the ability to know their exact body temperature.

  6. rhombopteryx says:

    “A couple of months ago F.D.A. became aware of bluefin tuna as aspecies Americans are eating”

    I believe the technical term for that ‘fact’ is ‘horsepoop.’ According to their own website:

    The draft Fish and Fishery Products Hazards and Controls Guide (February 16, 1994) listed methyl mercury as a potential safety hazard for bonito,…, and bluefin tuna”

    So they’ve known about Americans eating bluefin, and it being risky, for 14 years, minimum.

  7. bigboat says:

    @Craig: Nice!

  8. MercuryPDX says:

    Now I’m craving Japanese for dinner… :(

  9. grins says:

    Remember 6 moths or so ago when they found out that grocery store albacore was high in mercury (as they say above, not as high as bluefin)? a few weeks later an article was published saying that someone had compared the mercury levels in the canned tuna with tuna samples from circa 1900, and they were almost identical. The researchers (or maybe the reporters) speculated about some unknown property of tuna that protects from mercury absorption. Maybe the bluefin have it in spades ;-)

  10. XTC46 says:

    mmmm ahi…

    Im taking an aquaculture class currently and we will be cooking some of these yummy fish up as a lab..best class ever.

  11. Do_They_Get_It says:

    Ode to Toro…

    no seriously, that is why you see the “pregnant women should not eat…” signs at the Sushi Bar. Given CA cancer legislation, it probably would be on an ordinary can of tuna as well.

    With that said, Thankfully we have an excellent Sushi Restaurant in our little Burg in Rural Mtns, anyone in WNC looking for THE place…I know it. (and I thought I would have to go without when moved from ChiTown).

  12. maztec says:

    I can my own tuna – and test it. Consistently the mercury levels are far below that found in commercially canned food. I really do wonder what the companies do to the fish in their processing or if getting it locally really makes that big of a difference . . .

  13. RottNDude says:

    @rhombopteryx: Good catch – I emailed this Bolger character at the FDA to inquire about the discrepancy in statements… I doubt I’ll get a response but it’s good to keep these lying jackasses on their toes.

  14. formergr says:

    @Do_They_Get_It: I’m jealous. I moved from ChiTown about 6 months ago, and the sushi restaurants here in DC are piss-poor in comparison.

  15. BlakeO says:

    Oh, come on! It’s hard enough finding good sushi here in the midwest (suburb of detroit). The last things I want to hear are health consequences from eating tuna!

  16. dgcaste says:

    This is serious. Mercury poisoning has killed or disabled thousands. One scientist had a drop of dimethyl mercury fall on his latex glove and he died several months later.

  17. RottNDude says:

    @dgcaste: No need to be alarmist… a drop of pure dimethyl mercury is a bit different than the trace amounts of methyl mercury (1 ppm is the FDA’s allowed limit) found in these critters.

    Also, the scientist in question was a she:

    In short, don’t panic, and enjoy everything in moderation.

  18. mthrndr says:

    @dgcaste: Dude. Dimethyl mercury is basically frickin plutonium. the mercury in fish, while never healthy, is on a different plane altogether. My dad once used his bare hands to slather a clay vase with mercury back in the early 60s. No signs of problems yet (though you never can tell). so relax.

  19. D3R3K says:


    Try Ajishin on Grand River Ave in Novi. They have the most authentic Jap cuisine in Michigan as the place is run by Japanese, not Koreans. Suggest you go on weekdays and weekends require waiting of 20+ mins, no reservations are allowed. Also, Izzakaya Sanpei in Canton is pretty good too. Run by Japanese too.

  20. mac-phisto says:

    @mthrndr: you’ll know to start worrying when he beings to resemble this gentleman.

  21. Szin says:

    Damn. Japonica is on the list. Oh man, the sushi there is SO good. Luckily though, I can still have 1 piece of Tuna without going over the limit, which is really all you need there, as their Sushi is HUGE!

    Well shit, I want Japonica now!

  22. TPIRman says:

    “A couple of months ago F.D.A. became aware of bluefin tuna as a species Americans are eating.”

    Please don’t eat bluefin tuna. Put simply, they’ve been severely overfished and are in danger of becoming extinct. Not only are bluefin tuna among the most majestic species in the ocean, but they are in fact quite delicious. Trouble is, if we keep gorging ourselves on them now, they’ll be gone soon. On the other hand, if we cut back on consumption now, allow populations to recover (assuming that is still possible), and then start fishing them again with responsible policies, we’ll be able to enjoy them indefinitely.

    The New York Times’s Lede blog had a short item on this late last year, and you can find a lot more info in the book End of the Line by Charles Clover, an environmental reporter who, like me, enjoys good seafood and would like to keep eating it for a while.

  23. ExVee says:

    Right, as somebody a ways back mentioned, people have been aware of a frighteningly high (and growing!) mercury content in much of the fish that reaches consumer …er, consumption. Add to that how current practices are rapidly eating through (honestly, no pun intended) the available numbers of tuna just to feed Japan’s obsession with sashimi on a daily basis, and you’re legitimately looking at potential fishing to the brink of extinction within the relative near future.

    Not only are a lot of people systematically poisoning themselves with a severely toxic metal, but in the process they’re pushing a species closer and closer to ceasing to exist. Not a fun variant on burning the candle at both ends, if you ask me.

  24. Trai_Dep says:

    I heard a major contributor to mercury in fish was from coal plants that were too cheap to use decent scrubbers on their smokestacks. Largely due to the GOP pulling back previous mandates to, well, stop poisoning American children. And (cough: hypocrites!) developing fetuses.

    Charming. Just so very… Charming.

  25. dgcaste says:

    @mthrndr: perhaps using that strange compound as an example was a bit out of line. mercury poisoning is still pretty serious. ok, so handling a vase once, our touching an old thermometer’s mercury drop for a couple of seconds is OK, but some people eat this stuff every day.

  26. bustit22 says:


    I knew it!! IT IS GEORGE BUSH’S FAULT!

  27. rewinditback says:

    yeah, i was gonna say… i’ve been ordering bluefin sushi for over ten years now. I wasn’t eating in some seedy backyard sushi joint either…they’ve known.

  28. Project Thanatos says:

    mmm that’s some savory liquid metal

  29. iaintgoingthere says:

    I’m not sure if I can trust the out come of this study/test. What’s her last name..BURGER.

  30. iaintgoingthere says:

    @Craig: U beat me to it

  31. Skiffer says:

    So you’re saying a 21st century version of Alice in Wonderland would have a Mad Sushi Chef instead?

    (50 Geek Points to anyone who gets that…)

  32. wring says:

    does this dampen my excitement over gorging on seared tuna at the sushi buffet that charges $8 for lunch?

    fuck no.

  33. RottNDude says:

    Mike Bolger responds!

    The quote pertained to the particular issue of blue fin tuna in sushi which was not relevant in 1994. Most blue fin tuna is consumed by the Japanese and because of the cost (if not the most expensive fish in the world, very near the top) is used in small amounts in top-end and expensive sushi.

    P. Michael Bolger, Ph.D., D.A.B.T.
    Chief, Chemical Hazards Assessment Team
    Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
    US Food and Drug Administration

    I still think he’s full of it, and he didn’t really address the question.

  34. ancientsociety says:

    Glad I ordered the Salmon Maki last night!

  35. bbbici says:

    Good. People who eat wild, depleting animals SHOULD get poisoned.

  36. IrisMR says:

    @bbbici: Well that’s being very nice. Absolutely enlightened.

  37. SinA says:

    I blame the fish. They should swim in water that doesn’t have so much mercury if they don’t want to make people sick.

  38. LionelEHutz says:

    I blame Clinton and all of the complainers. Now we won’t be able to enjoy the tastiest industrial waste that money can buy.

  39. crankybureaucrat says:

    @Skiffer: I got pretty excited that someone brought up the mercury poisoning from the fine, fine art of turning beaver pelts into hats. (Soil biochemistry was good for something). I think the big difference is, though, that hatters somehow volatilized the mercury where the mercury in tuna is bound by the fat in the tuna.

    Sort of related, I read somewhere that high mercury levels in fish was more common in warm-water species like tuna and not cold water species like Halibut? Has anybody else heard that?

  40. theblackdog says:

    @bbbici: And people who eat wild plants deserve Salmonella :-P

  41. shadow735 says:

    I love sushi, good thing I cant afford to eat it all the time, wait what was we talking about, damn I hate that, memory problems must be all that mercury, hey didnt an emperor of china take mercury balls so that he could live forever?

  42. shadow735 says:

    Oh yeah and some how some way Bush is to blame

  43. fencepost says:

    Mercury is why I stopped eating much tuna sushi some time back and cut back on canned albacore.

    Basically, the larger the fish the more mercury it’s likely to accumulate in its body over time. Anything that’s giving you large tuna steaks (of the sort sliced for sushi or that are economically feasible for canning “whole”) is coming from a mighty big fish. “Chunk light” isn’t quite as perty but it generally also has significantly less mercury because it tends to come from the smaller tuna species, and the day I worry about how pretty my tuna salad is is the day I stab myself to death with a rolled up Southern Living magazine.

  44. lotusflwr says:

    I am shocked that the sushi chefs don’t slap Kanoki Footpads on the fish after they are purchased. It would draw all those awful toxins right out of there! Could it be that they are not aware of the ancient Japanese secret to health?!?!?

  45. rhombopteryx says:

    That, and mercury from volcanic undersea eruptions. Possibly the GOP’s fault.
    It’s pretty clear that the mercury contamination in freshwater fish has gone up, up, UP with the increased mercury from coal plants, but mercury levels in marine fish are a little less clear. Maybe they are pretty stable, (though still dangerous, obviously) and more related to environmental mercury from volcanism, according to some research.