Ask Mickey: Is Your Seafood Radioactive?



We know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. Making good food choices helps you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. In our Ask Mickey series, a team of Bon Appétit Management Company dietitians and chefs offers tips on “chewing the right thing” and answers your nutrition questions. (Mickey, aka Michelina, is a particular feisty Italian grandmother who continues to inspire us.)

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Given news about radiation from the Japanese earthquake/tsunami leaking into the Pacific Ocean, how safe is it to eat seafood caught from the Pacific Ocean?

Seafood has been a star ingredient for years, thanks to the healthy fats, lean proteins, and culinary versatility it offers. Yet with recent news about markers of nuclear radioactivity found in fish after the Japanese disasters, many diners have questions about whether it’s  safe choice. For those who enjoy the flavor, ease, and health benefits of seafood, it’s great news that the answer is yes! We can continue to enjoy our favorite seafoods in appropriate portions.

Scientists researching the effects of the Fukushima meltdown have found trace amounts of radioactive material in several commonly consumed fish species, such as tuna and salmon. However, the amounts identified are far lower than the limits set by the government for safe levels of consumption. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the federal agency in charge of monitoring food for radioactivity, tests for radiation as part of its rigorous monitoring programs that ensure the safety of seafood in the market today. The FDA also works closely with the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration to monitor and sample the radiation levels of seafood in the ocean.

As the FDA’s online guidance dated
March 2014 (the most recent available) states:

To date, FDA has no evidence that radionuclides from the Fukushima incident are present in the U.S. food supply at levels that would pose a public health concern. This is true for both FDA-regulated food products imported from Japan and U.S. domestic food products, including seafood caught off the coast of the United States. Consequently, FDA is not advising consumers to alter their consumption of specific foods imported from Japan or domestically produced foods, including seafood.

A study published in the June 3, 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that most consumers of seafood experience greater exposure to minute levels of radiation from air travel, common medical procedures such as X-rays, and naturally occurring radioactive elements in other foods. When they looked specifically at seafood, they found that the majority of the radionuclides identified in samples were from other sources, not the events in Fukushima.

Even if fish forms a significant part of your diet — such as 1/4 pound of highly contaminated fish a day — the total amount of possible exposure will still be less than the international dose limit for safe consumption of radiation in foods. The study in PNAS states that, given a hypothetical group of 10 million people who consume that much seafood, only 2 people might develop a fatal cancer directly as a result. The health issues around mercury levels in large fish pose a far greater concern — one that we’ll discuss in this column next month!

For most of us, the health benefits of continuing to enjoy fish far outweigh the potential risks. Recommendations vary according to your age, health conditions, and if you are pregnant or not, but most diners should strive to include sustainably caught or farmed fish and shellfish options 2-3 times a week. A balanced diet that includes fish as well as plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains supports well-being with healthy weight maintenance, cardiovascular health, and protection from a variety of diseases, including some cancers. And those are good reasons to keep seafood a star in your favorite meals!