Consumption before confusion

A U.S. advocacy group recently released a report accusing the government of not doing a good enough job at easing consumer confusion about eating seafood. While they have a point, the bigger issue is that the government needs to do a better job of promoting overall seafood consumption.

The Environmental Working Group report stated you can’t tell people to double or triple their consumption without clear information about what to eat. The group warns that people who follow the federal government’s advice could consume too much methylmercury or too few omega-3 fatty acids.

EWG’s approach seems like an all-too-familiar scare tactic that will actually result in people eating less seafood, not more.

Time and time again the seafood industry has said the methylmercury risk from seafood consumption is not a health concern — except for pregnant women and nursing mothers, and those guidelines are generally well-known.

An Environmental Protection Agency peer-reviewed study in November of last year showed that methylmercury levels in women have dropped significantly. The study found the percentage of women of childbearing age with blood mercury above “the level of concern” plummeted 65 percent from 2001 to 2010.

A study done by the University of Bristol in September 2013 showed that women should consider eating more fish during pregnancy as fears over methylmercury levels may be unfounded. The research suggests fish accounts for just 7 percent of methylmercury levels in the human body, with all food and drink totaling less than 17 percent.

The bigger problem is that while mercury levels are dropping, so are consumption levels.

According to Gavin Gibbons, National Fisheries Institute’s director of media relations, pregnant women in the U.S. eat four times less seafood than they should.

Numbers released in October of last year show that the average American ate 14.4 pounds of seafood in 2012, a 4 percent drop from 2011 figures. In 2008, consumption levels were at 16 pounds.  

“So, the government message about the importance of seafood during pregnancy, mercury and all, is not getting through to women. The fact that pregnant women still only eat 1.89 ounce of seafood is nothing to celebrate — we have failed them and their children,” said Gibbons.

The USDA dietary guidelines updated in 2010 (which is scheduled to be updated again in 2015) strongly emphasize the importance of eating seafood to fight obesity and promote overall good health. Americans are encouraged to eat at least 5.5 ounces of protein each day, but the updated guidelines specify that 22 percent of that protein should come from seafood, yet the majority of Americans are not eating two to three seafood meals per week.

So when warnings about eating certain types of fish are released, consumers tend to avoid fish altogether.

What the focus should be on is getting people to eat more seafood, because no matter how you slice it, the benefits far outweigh the risks.


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