During 2014 the EU Rapid Alert System (RASFF – Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed) recorded a relevant number of 62 notifications – sent only from Italy – for large size fish containing heavy metals, mercury in particular.
The countries of origin of the fish are different, but with a clear predominance of Spain, closely followed by Portugal and Vietnam.
This is a useful information for food business operators which purchase fish products from these countries: in order to avoid contaminated lots and the potential sanctions from the controlling authorities, it is strongly suggested to adopt reinforced sampling and testing activities.
Swordfish, tuna and mako shark, are among the main species involved and the values of mercury found by the authorities were very different from one case to another (from 0.7-0.8 mg / kg to 5.4 mg / kg and above): from this risk are exempted canned foods, usually derived from fish of medium size, less exposed to this kind of contamination. It must also be pointed out that the risk arising is not of immediate/acute type, but is more likely a cumulative toxic effect.
Following a request from the European Commission, in 2014 EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) released a Scientific Opinion to assess health benefits and risks associated with the consumption of fish and the potential presence of mercury. The Panel concluded that consumption of about 1‑2 servings of seafood per week and up to 3‑4 servings per week during pregnancy has been associated with better functional outcomes of neurodevelopment in children compared to no consumption of seafood. Such amounts have also been associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease mortality in adults and are compatible with current intakes and recommendations in most of the European countries considered. These associations refer to seafood per se and include beneficial and adverse effects of nutrients and non-nutrients (i.e. including contaminants such as methylmercury) contained in seafood.
So, there is no need to panic, but certainly the high number of RASFF notifications is suggesting to be a bit careful in consuming too much of those species and to strengthen the official controls in this sector. Despite the presence of a real risk for human health, however, it is quite strange the total absence of news about this situation in the main newspapers, often very quick to raise excessive awareness in cases where there is not any risk (i.e. blue mozzarella).
The Italian Ministry of Health advised through its website a moderate consumption of predatory species of large size (1 serving per week of about 100 g, 2 servings for tuna), especially with regard to children and pregnant women, and pointed out that a reason for the peak of notifications to the RASFF is a consequence of the reinforced controls on the market.