Why We Want Pregnant Women and Children to Eat More Fish

By: Stephen Ostroff, M.D.

Ten years ago, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency advised pregnant and breastfeeding women, and women who might become pregnant, to limit their consumption of fish to no more than 12 ounces a week to protect the fetus and their children from mercury, which is present to some degree in all fish.

Stephen OstroffIt appears many women may have taken that advice too far. FDA’s analysis of the reported seafood consumption of more than 1,000 pregnant women in the United States found that over 20 percent of them had eaten no fish at all in the previous month. Of the women who reported eating fish, 50 percent ate less than two ounces a week, and 75 percent ate less than four ounces per week.

That’s a real problem because we now know that that there’s a beneficial link between eating fish during pregnancy and children’s growth and development. Scientific studies indicate that the best way for pregnant and breastfeeding women to reap those health benefits for their children while minimizing risk from mercury is by eating at least eight to 12 ounces per week of a variety of fish lower in mercury. That is the level that we are now recommending.

What fish are lower in mercury? The answer is most fish in the grocery store. For example, nine of the most-commonly eaten fish in the U.S. are toward the low end: shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish, cod, flatfish and haddock. So there should be little difficulty in selecting fish to meet the optimal weekly amount of fish consumption.

The four fish that FDA and EPA continue to recommend that women in the target group and young children avoid because they are the highest in mercury are: tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel. These four types of fish are not commonly eaten in the United States and represent less than two percent of the market share here.

We are also continuing to recommend that women in the target group eat no more than six ounces per week of albacore tuna. This advice should not adversely affect most women’s current consumption patterns because six ounces a week is nearly three times the amount that most women are now eating of any type of fish in a typical week.

We want to hear from you about this draft advice. The draft is now open for comments. We also plan to take the draft updated advice to FDA’s Advisory Committee on Risk Communication, which will hold a public meeting on it in the near the future.

And separately, we have received a citizen petition requesting, in part, that FDA require that its recommendations about seafood consumption be posted where seafood is sold. This petition is currently under consideration by FDA.

Finally, I want to emphasize that pregnant or breastfeeding women should continue to consume a well-balanced diet to help ensure the health of their children. No matter what the food, our priority is making sure you know the benefits and the risks so that you can make the best choice for yourself and your family.

Stephen Ostroff, M.D., is FDA’s Acting Chief Scientist

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