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FDA’s advice on eating fish during pregnancy stirs debate

Alex Staroseltsev/istock

Whenever the federal government issues advice on how we should eat, there’s never a shortage of criticism. New advice that counsels children and pregnant women to eat more fish is no exception. The US Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new dietary recommendation last Tuesday that tweaks — ever so slightly — the agency’s advice on fish consumption.

Instead of telling women and young children to “eat up to 12 ounces a week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury,” the government now suggests they “eat 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of fish each week from choices that are lower in mercury.”

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Government officials say they needed to set a minimum recommended amount, rather than just a maximum, because research suggests that the tide has turned too far against eating fish during pregnancy. Most women restrict their intake or avoid fish altogether because of concerns about mercury — found in varying amounts in all fish — which can interfere with a baby’s brain development.

The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental activist group based in Washington, D.C., criticized the new advice for not specifically identifying fish with rich amounts of brain-boosting omega-3 fats and minimal amounts of mercury.

“Consumers need precise, detailed information about foods that provide sufficient omega-3 fatty acids with minimal mercury contamination,” said the group’s senior analyst, Sonya Lunder. “The FDA’s new guidelines fall far short of advice that would actually protect these vulnerable populations.”

An Environmental Working Group analysis released in January found that only salmon and canned albacore tuna contained enough omega-3 fats in 8 ounces of fish to provide optimal health benefits during pregnancy. But the analysis also found that albacore tuna had too much mercury in that amount for pregnant women to safely consume.

“We have concluded that pregnant and breast-feeding women can increase developmental and health benefits to their children by eating more fish than they typically do,” said Dr. Stephen Ostroff, the FDA’s acting chief scientist, “while still protecting them” from harms caused by too much mercury.

Nine out of 10 of the most commonly eaten fish, he added, contain low amounts of mercury and include shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, and cod. Unfortunately, most of those varieties contain minimal amounts of omega-3 fats. The Environmental Working Group found that a woman would need to eat 20 ounces a week of canned light tuna or pollock, 40 ounces a week of cod, or 100 ounces a week of shrimp to receive the recommended amount of these beneficial fats.

Yet the FDA declined to distinguish among types of fish recommended when it comes to their content of omega-3 fats despite the fact that Ostroff said the agency wanted to educate pregnant women on the benefits “that can accrue from eating fish including neurodevelopement.” He did, though, emphasize that this is “draft advice” that could change after the agency reviews comments from the public.

Some will likely call for educational materials to be on hand in the fish section of supermarkets. “We’d like to see signs at seafood counters with fish species ranked by their mercury content,” said Sarah Klein, a senior staff lawyer in the food safety program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The nutrition education group filed a lawsuit against the FDA in March demanding new regulations to label fish containing high levels of mercury and to define for consumers what levels of mercury consumption are safe.

“No one knows what the tolerance is for mercury in seafood,” Klein said, because the government hasn’t established a safe level.

Industry groups largely support the government’s updated recommendations. “It’s only a draft and it’s not perfect but it’s headed in the right direction,” said Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group based in Washington. “Groups that are breathlessly attacking this advice marginalize themselves in this discussion and reveal their agenda as being just barely science-based.”

The FDA and EPA also advised pregnant and breast-feeding women — and those feeding young children — to avoid fish with the highest mercury levels: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel.

Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.
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