U.S. seafood leaders and suppliers are expressing concern about new governmental guidelines issued Wednesday, 18 January regarding seafood consumption among pregnant women, parents and other consumers.
The new final advice document from the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency is meant to help women who are pregnant or may become pregnant – as well as breastfeeding mothers and parents of young children – decide which fish are healthy to eat. To that end, the agencies divided 62 types of seafood into three categories: “Best choices” (eat two to three servings a week), “Good choices” (eat one serving a week) and “Fish to avoid.”
Fish on the “Best choices” list account for more than 90 percent of the fish consumed in the U.S., according to the agencies. Best choices include salmon, pollock, anchovy, herring, Atlantic mackerel, lobster, scallop, shrimp, tilapia, catfish and canned light (skipjack) tuna. Good choices, which should be eaten once a week, include Chilean sea bass, halibut, carp, rockfish, snapper, Yellowfin tuna and albacore tuna.
Fish that should be avoided – because they contain the highest mercury levels – include King mackerel, orange roughy, marlin, shark, swordfish, bigeye tuna and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, according to the FDA and EPA.
However, the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) issued a statement criticizing the guidelines, calling them “confusing.”
The new advice “runs the risk of confusing moms and nutrition professionals alike,” the NFI said. “With lists, categories and an unclear message that includes suggestions on how often to eat buffalofish, weakfish and sheepshead, the advice has nutrition professionals scratching their heads.”
“Clear, concise direction that encourages pregnant women to eat more fish for optimal baby brain and eye development is a science-based message that’s needed. I don’t see that message in this document,” said Rima Kleiner, registered dietitian with the NFI. “FDA numbers show that pregnant women eat less than two ounces of fish per week as it is. The FDA’s clinical goal, originally, was to increase that number. That message is lost in this advice.”
The new guidance fail to follow much of the FDA’s own research, according to the NFI.
Previous FDA research found that it is safe for Americans to eat 853 ounces of salmon weekly, which amounts to more than 200 servings, yet the new advice limits salmon to two to three servings per week. In addition, FDA’s Net Effects report found that it is safe to eat 61 ounces of halibut, or 15 servings a week, yet the new advice limits halibut to one serving per week.
“This advice raises more questions than answers,” said NFI President John Connelly. “We’re interested to find out what it’s based on.”
While the new advice says children should start eating fish at two years old, a report released last week by the National Academies of Sciences encourages children to eat seafood earlier.
“That kind of fundamental contradiction troubles professionals on the front lines of communicating nutrition advice,” NFI said.
However, the two agencies encourage pregnant women to eat more seafood – at least certain types of seafood.
“An FDA analysis of fish consumption data found that 50 percent of pregnant women surveyed ate fewer than two ounces a week, far less than the amount recommended. Because the nutritional benefits of eating fish are important for growth and development during pregnancy and early childhood, the agencies are advising and promoting a minimum level of fish consumption for these groups,” FDA and EPA said in a statement.
Choices lower in mercury include some of the most commonly eaten fish, such as shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish and cod, FDA and EPA pointed out.
“Fish are an important source of protein and other nutrients for young children and women who are or may become pregnant, or are breastfeeding. This advice clearly shows the great diversity of fish in the U.S. market that they can consume safely,” said FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Dr. Stephen Ostroff. “This new, clear and concrete advice is an excellent tool for making safe and healthy choices when buying fish.”
The two agencies advice recommending consumption of two to three servings of lower-mercury fish per week, or 8 to 12 ounces, is consistent with the 2015 - 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
“However, all fish contain at least traces of mercury, which can be harmful to the brain and nervous system if a person is exposed to too much of it over time,” they said.
“It’s all about eating and enjoying fish of the right kind and in the right amounts,” said EPA Director for Water Science and Technology Elizabeth Southerland. “This joint advice not only provides information for fish consumers who buy from local markets, but it also contains good information for people who catch their own fish or are provided fish caught by friends or relatives.”
The two agencies are urging all seafood retailers to post the new guidelines, including the reference chart listing their fish ratings, “prominently in their stores so consumers can make informed decisions when and where they purchase fish.”
In addition, the agencies will be implementing a consumer education campaign in partnership with a wide array of public and private partners.