Whenever the federal government issues new advice on how we should eat, there’s never a shortage of criticism, and new advice counseling pregnant women and children to eat more fish is no exception. The US Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency proposed a new dietary recommendation on Tuesday that tweaks — ever so slightly — their old 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 would now like them to “eat 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of fish each week from choices that are lower in mercury.”
See the subtle difference? 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 it altogether because of concerns about the pollutant mercury — found in varying amounts in all fish — which can interfere with a baby’s brain development.
But the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit environmental activist group based in Washington, D.C., criticized the new advice for not being specific enough in 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 a weekly 8-ounce serving 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, are at the low end of the mercury spectrum 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 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 be calling for educational materials to be on hand in the fish section of supermarkets. “We’d like to see signs at seafood counter with fish species ranked by their mercury content,” said Sarah Klein, a senior staff attorney 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 like the National Fisheries Institute support the government’s updated advice. It “clears the water on outdated guidance, which was widely misunderstood as a warning,” reads a statement on the Institute’s website. “Moms-to-be and new moms are now encouraged to eat 2-3 servings of seafood each week for optimal brain development.”
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. That hasn’t changed much from their previous advice issued a decade ago.