FDA says eat more fish but deletes helpful list of lower-mercury seafood

Consumer Reports urges agency to put that chart back online

Published: August 21, 2014 11:00 AM

Editor's Note: Read Consumer Reports' take on changes the Food and Drug Administration made to its advice on fish consumption for women of childbearing age, pregnant women, and young children in January, 2017.

The Food and Drug Administration is encouraging women of childbearing age and young children to increase their weekly consumption of lower-mercury fish. But in a move that Consumer Reports is strongly urging the FDA to reconsider (PDF), the agency recently eliminated from its website a helpful list of lower-mercury seafood choices that made it easier for those women and parents of young children to follow the agency’s advice.

In June, the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new guidelines advising women who are pregnant, breast-feeding or trying to become pregnant to eat between 8 and 12 ounces of fish per week, and suggested a minimum weekly quota for young children too. This marks the first time the two agencies have set a firm minimum level for weekly consumption of fish and shellfish.

To meet those new weekly quotas, the guidelines recommend eating “a variety of fish lower in mercury” and the FDA helpfully linked to a chart on its website that divided fish and shellfish into three tables based on their widely varying mercury levels. The chart included a table titled “Fish and Shellfish With Lower Levels of Mercury” that listed 32 different types of seafood, making it easier for busy young mothers and pregnant women to identify the safest choices when following the agency’s advice to eat more fish.

In early August, after Consumer Reports’ experts asked questions about the chart, including the criteria used to determine lower mercury fish, the FDA abruptly eliminated the three-table version of this chart. Instead, the agency now offers a single table that groups all types of fish together, regardless of their mercury levels. They are simply listed in alphabetical order, along with their mercury concentrations, leaving it to consumers to decipher which contain levels that might pose too much risk.

Explaining its rationale in a statement to Consumer Reports, the FDA said, “We changed the chart because we don’t want to get into characterizing fish as low, medium, or high.” The agency also said that an alphabetized list would “invite visitors to compare the levels of mercury in different varieties of fish.”

The EPA does not set a specific threshold for identifying lower mercury fish species, but in an e-mail to Consumer Reports, the agency did offer helpful advice for consumers. “By eating two to three meals per week of a variety of fish that do not exceed an average mercury concentration of 0.12 ppm per week, women and young children will receive the benefits of eating fish and be confident of reducing their exposure to the harmful effects of mercury,” the agency said in the e-mail.

Consumer Reports’ food-safety experts are urging the FDA to restore the chart to its original three-table format to make it easier for pregnant women, parents of young children, and others to get the nutritional benefits of fish while minimizing their mercury exposure. Young children and women who are pregnant, nursing, or trying to become pregnant are most vulnerable to risks posed by mercury exposure.

The proposed federal fish consumption guidelines recommend that young children and women of childbearing age avoid four fish with the highest mercury levels—swordfish, shark, king mackerel, and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico. Consumer Reports agrees that those groups should avoid high-mercury seafood, but disagrees with the latest federal recommendations on how much tuna women and kids may eat, and believes pregnant women should avoid eating any tuna.

Based on an analysis of FDA’s tests measuring mercury levels in various types of fish, Consumer Reports food-safety experts have identified nearly 20 different types of fish and shellfish that can be eaten frequently by anyone, including pregnant women and young children. Read our special report for our list of low-mercury fish recommendations and other advice to help you get the benefits of eating fish while minimizing mercury exposure risks.

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