FDA dietary hearings to key in on contaminants


Sean Murphy, SeafoodSource online editor

Published on
October 29, 2014

As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prepares to convene more hearings next week on its proposed new dietary guidelines for pregnant women regarding seafood, a private firm’s new study underscores the need to set the record straight on a number of seafood health issues, especially mercury.

The FDA plans to hold hearings in Washington, D.C., on 3 and 4 November to discuss its draft of new guidelines for pregnant women. Right now, the agency recommends pregnant women limit consumption of only four types of fish: swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel. The proposed new guidelines will not change that recommendation, but they will include language encouraging pregnant women to eat more of other types of fish. FDA data has always shown eating any fish other than swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel is safe and beneficial.

FDA spokesman Douglas Karas said new studies over the past 10 years have reinforced the benefits of eating low-mercury fish for pregnant women, motivating the FDA to revise the guidelines to include the positive advice.

“The time was right to update the advice,” he said.

Getting the message across to consumers could be an uphill battle, considering conflicting advice from doctors and health care professionals and the bevy of information online, based on the results of a new study conducted by Food Minds, a food and nutrition communication and consulting company.

SeafoodSource obtained an exclusive advance copy of the study, which surveyed 518 pregnant or breastfeeding women, 1,574 adults from the general population, and 303 health professionals who advise pregnant and breastfeeding women on prenatal and infant health and diet.

Grant Prentice, director of strategic insights for Food Minds, will be testifying next week and ask the FDA to encourage pregnant women eat even more seafood. He said many of the results of the Food Minds survey mirror the FDA’s own data, showing that the general population doesn’t eat enough fish, and pregnant women eat even less.

“They currently under-consume, and in some cases need to eat four times as much as they are,” Prentice said.

The Food Minds survey also agrees with the FDA on the role of the media. FDA studies show that “media coverage” is a factor in what decisions women make regarding seafood consumption, and the Food Minds survey found 41 percent of pregnant women surveyed regarded media coverage on fish to be “negative.”

While the FDA, citing federal data, noted that “health care provider” was one of the top sources of information about diet for pregnant women, the Food Minds survey blamed health care providers for promoting a great deal of misinformation, sometimes contrary to what the FDA has been recommending for years.

According to the survey, two out of five women cut back on eating fish while pregnant. Mercury contamination and danger to the child is the No. 1 concern, and 43 percent, the highest percentage of the women surveyed, cited their doctor or health care provider as the primary motivating source in their decision to eat less fish.

Worse, the survey showed only 36 percent of health care professionals recommend pregnant women eat more fish, and 27 percent actually recommend pregnant women decrease how much fish they eat. Of those who recommended a decrease, 73 percent were concerned about contaminants, mostly mercury, despite repeated FDA studies showing mercury risks are far outweighed by the benefits of seafood consumption. Prentice blamed mass media misinformation for swaying health care providers’ opinions.

“They are exposed to the same kind of media content as the consumer is,” he said.

The other significant difference in the Food Minds study concerned the Internet. While FDA data shows websites are a far smaller source of information than books and other mass media, the Food Minds survey showed 42 percent of surveyed pregnant women citing the Internet as a motivating source in eating less seafood, almost as much as the doctor or health care provider.

Regarding the Internet and doctors or health care provider, Prentice said “Both of those sources played a significant role.”

Regardless of differences in data, Prentice said both Food Minds and FDA have come to the same conclusion: Pregnant women need to eat more fish.

“It’s a very clear, strong step in the right direction,” Prentice said of the draft advice.

Prentice said he will ask FDA to recommend pregnant women eat even more fish than the draft guidelines suggest, saying of the Food Minds recommendations, “They advance the good work that FDA advisory has done.”

While Prentice said the best place to further education on the role of fish in a prenatal diet is at the doctor’s office, he added that the seafood industry can do its part too.

“Clearly, the industry has to participate in that conversation,” he said. “The industry has an opportunity to step up and communicate (the benefits).”

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