- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003


The government should provide more explicit advice to pregnant women and children about avoiding fish tainted with mercury, including greater detail on specific types of tuna, a scientific advisory panel said yesterday.

“You made a stab at tuna but you didn’t quite get it right,” Marion Aller, the Florida Agriculture Department’s food safety director, told the Food and Drug Administration.

Fish is very nutritious, containing certain fats healthy for the heart and important for fetal brain development.

But fish also can harbor mercury, a metal that accumulates in the bodies of fish eaters over time and, at high-enough levels, can damage the growing brains of fetuses and young children. About 8 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their blood to put a fetus at risk.

Some fish varieties harbor more mercury than others. The FDA has long said that young children and women who are or may become pregnant should avoid shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish.

But the FDA in 2001 sparked controversy by saying 12 ounces a week of any other fish was healthful during pregnancy.

Critics argued that tuna, with moderately high mercury levels, was eaten so often by pregnant women and young children that it needed a bigger warning. FDA’s own testing, released this week, showed that more expensive white, or albacore, canned tuna contains almost three times as much mercury as cheaper “light” canned tuna — prompting some consumer advocates to urge that pregnant women and young children avoid the albacore.

Because of the controversy, the FDA modified its consumer advice, stressing that women’s 12-ounce weekly quota should come from several varieties of fish, not the same type more than once a week. Drafts of the proposal also said that tuna steaks and canned albacore generally contain more mercury than canned light tuna.

That wording is still confusing to consumers, FDA’s scientific advisers said yesterday.

Instead, create a consumer-friendly list that tells women of childbearing age not just which fish to avoid but which are low in mercury and thus good choices, panelists told the FDA. And include a third category of fish with medium mercury levels that should be eaten only in small amounts, perhaps once a week.

Light tuna would be on the low-mercury list, while medium-mercury albacore should be on the caution list, Miss Aller said.

In addition, FDA should provide more explicit advice for young children, giving examples of serving sizes for youngsters of various weights, the panel advised. FDA’s current proposal merely says children should eat smaller portions of mercury-tainted fish than their parents.

The FDA had hoped to issue revised consumer recommendations by spring, and medical officer Dr. David Acheson pledged to try to meet that goal with the newly recommended changes.

The tuna industry opposes being singled out.

“The message consumers take away is ‘do not eat seafood,’” said John Striker of tuna packer Bumble Bee Seafoods Inc.

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