A chance to soothe mercury fears


Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor

Published on
June 3, 2014

This week, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner Margaret Hamburg told the Associated Press  the government agency was going to update the advice it gives to pregnant women regarding how much mercury in seafood was too much.

The AP called the announcement “a long-awaited move,” but that depends on whether the updates take a holistic approach to the role of seafood in a healthy diet, compared to focusing chiefly on mercury and scaring people away from seafood.

The mere mention of mercury, absent any qualifying data or explanation, once called to mind the vivid and terrifying images of children of the Japanese community of Minamata in the 1950s. After infants and pregnant mothers inadvertently ate ocean fish with an abnormally high concentration of the toxic metal due to discharge from a nearby industrial plant, the children developed terrible physical and developmental diseases, a clear sign of the dangers of too much mercury in one’s diet.

That said, scientists and industry leaders have tried many times over the years, often in vain, to quell fears that allowing one’s four-year-old to have a tuna fish sandwich or a pregnant mother daring to indulge in a bowl of chowder once in nine months was going to somehow create another Minamata.

I will never begrudge a mother or a mother-to-be the right to err on the side of caution, but in this case the fear is hurting more than it helps, leading to parents denying critical omega-3 fatty acids to their child’s development. It also ignores data that suggests selenium in the same fish that carry the mercury might be counteracting the mercury’s harmful effects.

The FDA’s 2010 guidelines, it should be said, seem rather level-headed, limiting the warnings to species that live the longest and consume the most mercury-laden prey — tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel — but the guidelines don’t mention much about the dangers of not eating seafood, and that should change.

In her interview, Hamburg said there won’t be a proposal to put mercury-related labels on seafood, but a new advisory would eventually go out. We’ll have to wait and see just what that means, but I’m betting it won’t be any more intrusive than signage at your local grocery store or fishmongers, or something printed on the menu akin to the warnings at restaurants about the dangers of consuming raw or undercooked meat or eggs.

If the FDA’s new advisories really do take the necessary balanced approach to educating people about mercury in seafood, it can only be a good thing. I don’t think anyone should have any illusions that consumption of seafood will shoot up once these advisories go out, but maybe it will be one more step toward using science to pierce the irrationality and reassure the fearful.

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