FDA, EPA Issue New Guidelines on Eating Fish

Smoked trout and smoked salmon at Fairfax Fishery
Smoked trout and smoked salmon at Fairfax Fishery
Jared Cowan

For the first time in a decade, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have updated their recommendations on fish consumption.

They are now advising a minimum amount of fish consumption for certain population groups. Previously, they had recommended maximum amounts for these groups, but not a minimum.

The two agencies have concluded that pregnant and breastfeeding women, those who might become pregnant and young children should eat more fish (of species that are not likely to contain mercury) "in order to gain important developmental and health benefits." 
"Over the past decade, emerging science has underscored the importance of appropriate amounts of fish in the diets of pregnant and breastfeeding women, and young children," the agencies say in a press release. (As far as how much fish you guys eat, everyone knows you're just going to eat fried calamari and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches anyway.)

"For years many women have limited or avoided eating fish during pregnancy or feeding fish to their young children," said Stephen Ostroff, M.D., the FDA's acting chief scientist. (This was largely due to concerns about potentially harmful mercury levels in fish.) "But emerging science now tells us that limiting or avoiding fish during pregnancy and early childhood can mean missing out on important nutrients that can have a positive impact on growth and development as well as on general health."

The FDA analyzed seafood consumption data from over 1,000 pregnant women in the United States and found that 21 percent of them ate no fish in the previous month, and those who ate fish ate far less than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends - with 50 percent eating fewer than 2 ounces a week, and 75 percent eating fewer than 4 ounces a week. The draft updated advice recommends pregnant women eat at least 8 ounces and up to 12 ounces (2-3 servings) per week of a variety of fish that are lower in mercury to support fetal growth and development.

"Eating fish with lower levels of mercury provides numerous health and dietary benefits," said Nancy Stoner, the EPA's acting assistant administrator for the Office of Water. "This updated advice will help pregnant women and mothers make informed decisions about the right amount and right kinds of fish to eat during important times in their lives and their children's lives."

The draft updated advice cautions pregnant or breastfeeding women to avoid four types of fish that are associated with high mercury levels: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico; shark; swordfish; and king mackerel. The agencies also recommend limiting consumption of white (albacore) tuna to 6 ounces a week (white tuna contains about three times as much mercury as light tuna). Mercury is a neurotoxin that can be harmful to the brain and nervous system if a person is exposed to too much of it. Nearly all fish contain at least traces of it, according to the draft report.

Choices lower in mercury include shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish and cod.

Fish are a high-quality form of protein, contain many vitamins and minerals and omega-3 fatty acids, are mostly low in saturated fat, and some fish even contain vitamin D, according to the feds. 

Before issuing final advice, the agencies will consider public comments, and also intend to seek the advice of the FDA's Risk Communication Advisory Committee and conduct a series of focus groups.

(But if you still don't trust the feds, check out the Los Angeles Food Policy Council's Sustainable Seafood Working Group's own recommendations for consuming safe seafood, which include asking where your seafood came from and looking for a "product of the USA" label.) 

The gist: Guess you pregnant ladies really got spooked by previous recommendations. Go ahead and have some shrimp cocktail, but keep on holding off on the grilled swordfish.  

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