FDA, EPA Release Final Fish Consumption Advice
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have issued final advice regarding fish consumption, with the aim of helping pregnant women and those of childbearing years, along with breastfeeding mothers and parents of young children, make better choices about healthy and safe-to-eat fish, including shellfish.
To simplify the selection process, the agencies have created a reference chart (pictured) that sorts 62 types of fish into three categories: “Best choices” (two to three weekly servings recommended), “Good choices” (one weekly serving), and “Fish to Avoid.” According to FDA and EPA, “Best Choices” fish make up almost 90 percent of fish consumed in the United States.
An FDA analysis of fish consumption data discovered that half of pregnant women surveyed ate fewer than 2 ounces a week, much less than the recommended amount. Because the nutritional advantages of fish consumption are key to healthy development during pregnancy and early childhood, the agencies are advising two to three weekly servings of lower-mercury fish for pregnant women and women who may become pregnant, or 8 to 12 ounces. However, since all fish contain at least traces of mercury, which can be harmful to the brain and nervous system after prolonged exposure, the maximum level of consumption recommended in the final advice is still the previously recommended weekly level of 12 ounces, consistent with the current Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
For adults, a usual serving is 4 ounces of fish, measured before cooking, while serving sizes for children should be smaller and adjusted by age and total calorie needs. The agencies recommend that children eat fish once or twice weekly, chosen from a variety of species.
“Fish are an important source of protein and other nutrients for young children and women who are or may become pregnant, or are breastfeeding,” noted FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Stephen Ostroff. “This advice clearly shows the great diversity of fish in the U.S. market that they can consume safely. This new, clear and concrete advice is an excellent tool for making safe and healthy choices when buying fish.”
Among the lower-mercury options for consumers are such commonly eaten fish as shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish and cod.
In updating their advice, FDA and EPA calculated the average mercury content of each type of fish, based on FDA data and information from other sources. The new advice cautions parents of young children and certain women to avoid seven types of fish that normally contain higher levels of mercury: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish, orange roughy, bigeye tuna, marlin and king mackerel.
“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.
Retailers are encouraged to post the final advice, including the reference chart, prominently in their stores so consumers can make use of it when purchasing fish. To raise awareness of the new advice, the agencies plan to roll out a consumer education campaign in collaboration with a broad range of public and private partners.
In 2014, the agencies released draft advice urging pregnant women and others to eat between 8 and 12 ounces weekly of fish that was “lower in mercury,” but didn’t offer at that time a list identifying which fish are fit that profile. The final advice also incorporates more than 220 comments from academia, industry, nongovernmental organizations and consumers, in addition to an external peer review of the information and method used to categorize the fish.
NFI Displeased by 'Disconnect'
Not everyone believes that the new advice is sufficient, however. According to the McLean, Va.-based National Institute of Fisheries (NFI), FDA has neglected to follow much of its own research in crafting the latest recommendations, as shown by what the trade association calls a “disconnect” between the amount of some species found safe to eat and the advice’s recommended weekly servings of those species.
“This advice raises more questions than answers,” said NFI President John Connelly. “We’re interested to find out what it’s based on. The fact that FDA/EPA communicators did not test this document with the audience for whom it was created is concerning.”
“The advice was supposed to be designed to clear up confusion, but unfortunately it does not appear to have achieved that goal,” added Rima Kleiner, NFI’s registered dietitian. “A deeper dive into how this document was created and what it’s based on will help answer some of those questions. But at this point we’re left with a lot on unknowns, and that’s not a great place to be when health is at stake. ”