Focus Pocus

Internal documents reveal that the FDA is failing in its public health obligation to warn pregnant women about mercury in tuna.

March 1, 2002

Focus Pocus: Table 1: The FDA withholds information from pregnant women on mercury-contaminated fish, citing "focus groups" as justification

Table 1

Contrary to what FDA told the public, when given advice on mercury in fish, most people said they would keep eating seafood, avoiding the high mercury fish.

Focus group participant Context of remark or type of person who made the remark What the participant said Reference
Name not given Pregnant woman "I'll stay away from... the three, but I'm not going to quit eating fish. 2 (pg 56)
Name not given Pregnant woman "My advice would be not to eat the mackerel, the shark, and the swordfish... limit your intake of the tuna and then, you know, eat the rest of the fish in moderation." 2 (pg 59)
Name not given Pregnant woman "I will probably stay within..." 2 (pg 41)
Name not given Pregnant woman "...that to me would be why I would want to know which ones have a low level so that I could just eliminate them from my diet and not eat a big enough portion to be adequate to one of the others." 2 (pg 47)
Name not given Pregnant woman "I would tell my friend; my doctors said don't eat swordfish, shark and mackerel... I wouldn't go into the low levels; I would just state the facts." 2 (pg 57)
Name not given Pregnant woman "...everything in moderation would be safe, but it's nice to know that if king mackerel was your favorite fish that's one thing you should eliminate..." 2 (pg 58)
Phyllis Pregnant woman "You want to eat it... in moderation, and I would suggest once a month, maybe twice a month, but to also find out which foods or which fish are low moderate versus the no mercury." 2 (pg 61)
Name not given Pregnant woman "I'm not going to eat these [high mercury fish], but I know I can eat these as long as I eat them in moderation." 2 (pg 89)
Tim Father of a teenager. Pretending to be a pregnant woman. "It just tells you what fish to avoid. I would avoid those [high mercury fish]." 1 (pg 23)
Elizabeth Mother of a teenager. Pretending to be a pregnant woman. "I think I'd be inclined to stay away from the types of fish that there are cautions with and eat other types." 1 (pg 25)
Elizabeth Mother of a teenager. Pretending to be a pregnant woman. "I, for some reason, would feel a little bit comfortable doing some canned tuna." 1 (pg 25)
Name not given Pretending to be a pregnant woman. Would you eat tuna steak? No, I wouldn't but would continue to eat tuna sandwiches. 1 (pg 26)
Katherine Single woman. Pretending to be a pregnant woman. "So I would probably, you know, stick within the guidelines that they discussed." 1 (pg 28)
Phyllis Mother of a teenager. Pretending to be a pregnant woman. "Well, if I went to a restaurant and they featured the tuna [steaks] and it sounded really good and it's okay three times a month, I'll go for it." 1 (pg 28)
Name not given Pretending to be a pregnant woman. "I suppose, if I read this and I were a pregnant woman, I could definitely avoid this... fish with a high level of mercury" 1 (pg 52)
Rosa Mother - 2 grown kids, 2 preteen girls "When you start thinking about what kinds of fish and make a selection, that's it... From the low ones." 3 (pp 30-31)
Ed Grandfather "Well, we haven't read anything yet that it is a negative thing to do unless you are pregnant. So, based on what we've read so far, I don't think I would change anything at this point." 3 (pg 31)
Name not given   "I would try to do too [stay away from high Hg fish]. Just in case something happened. Who knows in the future? I prefer to avoid." 3 (pg 31)
Cecelia Mother of a 2-year-old "If I'm not pregnant and I think it would make my life easy since I don't like fish. I'd just take vitamins. [question specific to high-mercury fish] 3 (pg 32)
Rosa Mother - 2 grown kids, 2 preteen girls "...because if you cook something and somebody comes to eat in your house or a guest or relative and they are healthy woman, thinking to about getting pregnant or maybe pregnant already. I don't want to cook anything troubles. [no high Hg fish in her house] 3 (pg 32)
Howard Father with 2 grown sons "I like king mackerel and tuna. I'm going to eat it." 3 (pg 33)
Craig Father with 2 teenagers "I've been in traffic here and there, played the dodge car show, see, and I guess my time was up five years ago, maybe twenty years ago, you never know. But, to make a long story short, I'll eat anything." 3 (pg 33)
Howard Father with 2 grown sons. Pretending to be a pregnant woman "I'd probably abstain from it. [high mercury fish] 3 (pg 33)
Craig Father with 2 teenagers. Pretending to be a pregnant woman "Yeah. I'd abstain. I can always eat later. I will. [high mercury fish] 3 (pg 34)
Judy Grandmother. Advice she would give her daughter. "If you're going to get pregnant within the next year, avoid these kinds of fish. ...first the king mackerel, the shark and the swordfish, and eat very moderate amounts of tuna." 3 (pg 35)
Ed Grandfather "I'd warn my daughters-in-law, but I haven't read yet that it says it's going to be harmful to me or harmful to my wife, who is beyond childbearing age. So, I don't think I'd change anything." 3 (pg 36)
Duane Single man "All the fish that have high mercury in it, and I don't eat anyway, so I think I'm going to be pretty safe on that." 3 (pg 36)
Name not given   "So, I would remember mackerel, shark, and swordfish and say no, and be moderate with the tuna fish steaks and all the rest is okay." 3 (pg 43)
Name not given   "I'd remember those three, but I also picked out ones on the lower list that I know I like. I'm like, next time out; it's okay to order salmon. I know for sure that's safe." 3 (pp 43-44)
Stacey Mother of two: 3-year-old and 7-month-old. Pretending to be a pregnant woman. "I almost want like a scientific, how it affects the baby's nervous system so that I can... rationalize in my mind that once a month is okay. Because otherwise... I'm going to say, it's not even worth the risk of having it one time. [high mercury fish] 3 (pg 56)

Source: Environmental Working Group. Compiled from FDA focus group transcripts. 1 - Macro International, Inc. 2000i - Boston, Nov 8, 8pm. 2 - Macro International, Inc. 2000j - Calverton, MD, Nov 14, 6pm. 3 - Macro International, Inc. 2000k - Calverton, MD, Nov 14, 8pm.