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FDA and EPA clarify fish consumption during pregnancy

Although fish is a healthy choice for consumption during pregnancy, mercury and other toxins can negate that benefit
Although fish is a healthy choice for consumption during pregnancy, mercury and other toxins can negate that benefit
Robin Wulffson, MD

Although fish is a healthy choice for consumption during pregnancy, mercury and other toxins can negate that benefit. Thus, many pregnant women avoid eating it. On June 10, new guidelines were released to help guide pregnant women, women who might become pregnant, breastfeeding women, and young children regarding appropriate. It noted appropriate amounts and types of fish to consume. The information was released by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The FDA and EPA noted that pregnant and breastfeeding women, those who might become pregnant, and young children should eat more fish that is lower in mercury because it contains significant developmental and health benefits. The agencies note that the updated advice is consistent with recommendations in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In the past, the FDA and the EPA recommended maximum amounts of fish that the aforementioned groups should consume; however, they did not specify a minimum amount. However, during the past decade, new scientific data has stressed the importance of appropriate amounts of fish in the diets of these individuals

“For years many women have limited or avoided eating fish during pregnancy or feeding fish to their young children,” noted Stephen Ostroff, MD, the FDA’s acting chief scientist. He added, “But emerging science now tells us that limiting or avoiding fish during pregnancy and early childhood can mean missing out on important nutrients that can have a positive impact on growth and development as well as on general health.”

The FDA conducted an analysis of seafood consumption data from more than 1,000 pregnant women in the nation. It found that 21% of them ate no fish in the previous month. Furthermore, those who ate fish ate far less than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends; 50% consumed fewer than 2 ounces a week, and 75% ate less than 4 ounces a week. The report’s updated advice recommends that pregnant women eat at least 8 ounces and up to 12 ounces (2-3 servings) per week of a variety of fish that are lower in mercury to support fetal growth and development.

“Eating fish with lower levels of mercury provides numerous health and dietary benefits,” explained Nancy Stoner, the EPA’s acting assistant administrator for the Office of Water. She added, “This updated advice will help pregnant women and mothers make informed decisions about the right amount and right kinds of fish to eat during important times in their lives and their children’s lives.”

The report stresses that pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid four types of fish that are associated with high mercury levels: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico; shark; swordfish; and king mackerel. Furthermore, the draft updated advice recommends limiting consumption of albacore (a tuna species) to 6 ounces a week. Choices that have a lower mercury content include some of the most commonly eaten fish, including shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish, and cod.

The report notes that before consuming fish caught from local streams, rivers, and lakes, the consumer should follow fish advisories from local authorities. If advice is not available, one should limit total intake of such fish to 6 ounces a week and 1-3 ounces for children. Before issuing final advice, the FDA and EPA will consider public comments; advice also will be sought from the FDA’s Risk Communication Advisory Committee; the agencies will also conduct a series of focus groups.

The report notes that the public can provide comment on the draft advice and the supplemental questions and answers by submitting comments to the Federal Register docket or by participating in any public meetings that may be held. The comment period will remain open until 30 days after the last transcript from the advisory committee meeting and any other public meetings becomes available. The dates of any public meetings, as well as when the public comment period will close, will be published in future Federal Register notices at this link.

Take home message:

This report contains helpful guidelines for the aforementioned groups. It mentions salmon is a healthy choice; however, avoid farm raised salmon (commonly referred to as Atlantic salmon). The fish are raised in confined areas and their flesh contains antibiotics and other toxins.