WASHINGTON – At a time when government warnings to limit seafood consumption have led to widespread confusion over how much is too much,a panel of seafood experts said Wednesday the greatest risk comes from eating too little fish – not too much.
“Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet,but unfortunately,the many benefits of seafood are being discounted by consumers worried about mercury levels in fish,” said Amy Niles,president of the National Women's Health Resource Center,which sponsored Wednesday's news conference. “Our message is simple: Make decisions on the basis of fact,not fear.”
Contaminates in seafood,specifically the chemical methyl mercury,prompted the Food and Drug Administration,acting with the Environmental Protection Agency,to issue serving guidelines in 2001 and again in 2004. Although the guidelines apply only to women of childbearing age,many consumers have simply avoided fish altogether,to the detriment of those who aren't addressed in the warnings,Niles said.
Confusion from the guidelines has resulted in fewer people getting enough omega-3 fatty acids in their diet,which are an important nutritional supplement primarily found in fish,Niles said. Officials from the FDA counter that the guidelines are doing their job,and any potential misunderstanding will clear due to increased education efforts,and as more time passes.
“I'd say that the message is getting out in the joint advisory for methyl mercury in fish,” said an FDA spokeswoman. “We're continuing our education efforts so that the target population is being informed.”
Current FDA guidelines recommend limiting total weekly seafood intake to 12 ounces,or two average meals,for women who are pregnant,may be pregnant,nursing mothers and young children.
“The greatest health risk comes from eating too little,not from too much fish,” said seafood nutritionist Joyce Nettleton,author of the book “Omega-3 Fatty Acids and Health.”
Both the FDA and the experts at Wednesday's news conference recommended that pregnant women avoid shark,swordfish,king mackerel and tilefish.
The National Women's Health Resource Center and Nettleton's work are partially sponsored by the U.S. Tuna Foundation.
The FDA needs to implement additional measures beyond improving the public's awareness of the guidelines,said Sam Haswell,a spokesman for the environmental advocacy group Oceana.
“We're trying to make sure that consumers are aware of FDA warnings regarding mercury in fish by getting supermarkets nationwide to post warning signs,” Haswell said. “Not enough people have access to that information,and we're trying to make sure its readily available when somebody goes to their seafood counter.”
According to a new study conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School,expectant mothers can safely consume the FDA recommended serving of fish to the benefit of their unborn child if they eat fish naturally low in mercury,such as shrimp,canned light tuna,salmon,pollock and catfish. The Harvard study was also partially funded by the U.S. Tuna Foundation.
“The 2004 FDA and EPA advisory warnings attempt to walk a fine line,” said Joshua Cohen,a senior research associate at the Harvard School of Public Health Center for Risk Analysis. “Public health decision makers need to take into account how people will react to those interventions.”