by Craig Weatherby
We’re reporting tonight from the just-ended 2010 Hawaii Seafood Symposium, titled “Making Sense of Seafood Health Benefits and Risks.”
The conference featured top international researchers studying the effects of fish, omega-3s, and mercury on human health and child development.
The symposium was organized by two U.S. agencies—the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Seafood Inspection Laboratory—and a non-profit seafood advocacy group called The Hawaii Seafood Council.
Given the nature of the organizers, critics might say that the scientific deck was stacked in favor of researchers who want the U.S. EPA and FDA to recommend more seafood for children and pregnant/nursing mothers, compared to these agencies’ current joint guidelines.
The organizing agencies may have pro-seafood biases, but the best available research on seafood risks and benefits keeps showing that the latter outweigh the former, by far.
In fact, the conference featured the most accomplished scientists in various areas of seafood and health research, such as psychiatrist Joseph Hibbeln, M.D. of NIH, pediatric neurologist and mercury expert Gary Myers, M.D., of the University of Rochester Medical School, and renowned neuroscientist Michael Crawford, Ph.D., of Imperial College London (For the full roster, click here).
We had illuminating conversations with many of the scientists in attendance… who issued a draft statement (see below) calling for urgent changes to the fish-intake guidelines issued jointly by the U.S. EPA and FDA… especially the agencies’ overly cautious, hence potentially harmful intake advice for children and pregnant/nursing mothers.
In December of 2008, the FDA’s scientific staff issued a draft report on seafood risks and benefits (See “FDA Analysis Supports More Fish for Moms and Kids”).
We’ve read the FDA’s draft review of the evidence and logically, it should have led to a rapid reform of the unintentionally harmful fish-intake limits currently advised for children and pregnant/nursing mothers.
The FDA draft report was attacked by some environmental groups and a section chief at sister agency EPA… but none of the critics provided substantial scientific reasons for their seemingly knee-jerk, fact-free reactions.
Sadly, the FDA still hasn’t released its final report almost two years later, nor has it publicly proposed any of the changes that its draft report’s findings supported by clear implication.
FDA inaction in face of evidence prompts scientists’ new statement
Alarm over the FDA’s failure to act, despite evidence of ongoing negative impacts of low omega-3s and fish intake among Americans—especially children and pregnant/nursing mothers—prompted scientists at the symposium to issue a statement directed at the FDA’s inaction.
Release of this symposium statement follows the FDA’s failure to even respond to a letter submitted by brain researchers Thomas Brenna, Ph.D., of Cornell University and Michael Crawford, Ph.D., of London Metropolitan University.
Their letter has now been co-signed by 129 M.D.s and Ph.D.s who are expert in aspects of fish, omega-3s, and health… a list of signees that continues to grow (see “Experts Ask FDA to Urge More Fish for Moms, Babies”).
Here is the draft symposium statement in full... you’ll see that we underlined some key points.
Draft Findings and Recommendations
Hawaii Seafood Symposium
Oct 20-22, 2010
Seafoods (including fish and shellfish but excluding marine mammals eaten in some cultures) are among the healthiest foods available to humankind.
Current science indicates that nutrients contained in seafood substantially benefit neurodevelopment and cardiovascular health. However appreciation of these health benefits has become lost in statements about potential harm.
The current guidance that limits seafood consumption to protect the public inadvertently causes harm it is intended to prevent. The current status of scientific knowledge indicates that the accuracy of the assessment of seafood benefits and risks can be greatly improved by adopting strategies that incorporate many variables as opposed to single elements of risk.
At this time, the requisite science has become sufficiently robust to support inclusion of the cardiovascular, neurodevelopmental and psychiatric effects of omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, methylmercury, and other seafood-related factors associated with benefits and risks into future assessments. In addition to improved accuracy, assessments that incorporate multiple variables will allow for the evaluation of additional risks and benefits as they become quantified.
Symposium Statement: Plain language version
Seafood including fish and shellfish is part of a healthy diet. Seafood in the diet provides consumers with brain and heart health benefits. The scientific evidence that these health benefits outweigh the theoretical risks is clear.
Omega 3s and other nutrients found in seafood are health-promoting. Selenium found in rich levels in ocean fish has essential anti-oxidant functions.
Selenium plays a protective role against methylmercury. For this reason risk analysis of methylmercury in seafood must also include the evaluation of selenium.
There is an urgent need to improve the public health message regarding seafood consumption by adequately weighing the scientific evidence of health benefits against theoretical risks.
Further guidance must communicate this message clearly and effectively to avoid the unintended consequences of reduced seafood consumption because seafood deficient diets cause increased risk of harm to the heart and brain.
We added underlining to highlight the key concepts:
To avoid causing harm, health educators and healthcare providers who play the frontline role in the communication of seafood consumption risk are in urgent need of improved guidance that considers health benefits and risks. They may not know they have this urgent need.
To hasten this process, the US FDA and the FAO/WHO must be encouraged to finalize their draft risk-benefit analyses of seafood in the diet. These analyses are crucial to improve current seafood consumption guidance that may be causing harm to consumers and their children.
To develop and disseminate improved guidance, scientists with expertise in the various disciplines involved in seafood benefits and risk assessment and communication, must work with public health officials in these critical assessments that incorporate multiple variables of benefits and risks.
Based on the current status of scientific knowledge of seafood health benefits and risks presented during this symposium:
It is clear that seafood is healthy food. It provides a nutrient-rich package containing essential long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins, protein, and essential minerals including iodine, iron and selenium.
Studies continue to demonstrate that the health benefits of eating seafood far outweigh the theoretical risks.
Life evolved in the ocean. Nutrients in seafood may have been pivotal to the evolution of the nervous system of all higher life forms and especially in the higher functioning human brain.
For the expectant mother, seafood in the diet is the richest source of many nutrients that optimize the development of the brain and nervous system of her developing baby
For young children, seafood in the diet is important for their optimal development and social behavior.
For adults, nutrients contained in seafood have been demonstrated to prevent or reduce coronary heart disease, stroke, psychiatric disorders, adverse effects of heavy metal exposure and possibly some cancers.
Seafood provides a rich source of selenium that has been shown repeatedly to offer protection against methylmercury.
Selenium-methylmercury interactions may explain why methylmercury poisoning from eating commercially available ocean fish has not been documented at any time or place.
The evidence is compelling that diets that are deficient in seafood are a real and present danger in contrast to consuming too much fish.
Americans have among the lowest seafood consumption rates of all developed nations.
Breast milk from American women contains among the lowest level of marine omega 3 fatty acids that are essential for the developing baby.
The current joint EPA FDA Fish consumption guidance for pregnant women and young children advises a limit on fish consumption of no more than 2 meals per week (12 oz). There is now evidence that this limitation for pregnant mothers is associated with harm to their babies in verbal IQ and other standardized developmental testing.
For this reason there is an urgent need to immediately revise the current joint EPA FDA Fish consumption guidance because:
This guidance is focused on mercury risk alone and does not consider the many health benefits of eating seafood.
This guidance serves as the basis of health advice for pregnant mothers given by physicians, dieticians and others.
This guidance is confusing and often misinterpreted, leading to the reduced seafood consumption and the unintended consequence of seafood deficient diets.
This guidance appears to be causing the harms it is intended to prevent.
Meeting the current and future needs of humankind for the nutrients found in seafood requires multiple coordinated efforts and new thinking because:
There has been and there will be a fundamental shift in the seafood supply, from dependence on wild capture fisheries to increasing reliance on aquaculture production.
There is an immediate need for sustainable management of capture fisheries. These fisheries must be preserved at sustainable levels of harvest. Overfished stocks must be rebuilt and overfishing must be eliminated. There can be no increase in wild fisheries production above sustainable limits.
Environmentally-responsible aquaculture development can be expanded to help meet the growing need for nutrients found in wild seafood only if new sources and formulations of aquaculture feed can be developed that provide the important seafood-derived nutrients, while reducing dependence on feed components derived from wild capture fisheries to sustainable levels.