As we reported earlier this year, the 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend at least eight ounces of seafood per week (See “Eating More Fish Advised”).
Yet, seafood consumption has dropped to an average of less than two ounces per week, according to a 2008 FDA survey.
The joint FDA-EPA guidance for young children and pregnant/nursing women isn't helping.
The agencies jointly advise young children and pregnant/nursing women to limit consumption to 12 ounces a week of species deemed low in mercury … such as salmon, cod, sardines, shellfish, and light tuna or pole-caught albacore tuna.
Senators Coburn and Gillbrand
All Vital Choice seafood is low in mercury … although fears of fish-borne mercury are both counterproductive and scientifically discredited. The only exception is frequent consumption of high-mercury shark, swordfish, tilefish, or king mackerel (not Californian or Portuguese chub mackerel, which are very low in mercury).
Senators form bipartisan alliance to urge smarter seafood advice
Today, Senator/mother Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) joined Senator/obstetrician Tom Coburn, M.D. (R-Oklahoma) in urging the Food and Drug Administration to raise the maximum amount of seafood it recommends for young children and pregnant or nursing mothers.
Dr. Coburn brings a professional perspective to the issue, as a physician who specializes in family medicine and obstetrics and has delivered more than 4,000 babies.
The Senators agree with leading researchers that the joint FDA-EPA recommendations don't reflect scientific reality and have led to unhealthy reductions in seafood consumption among pregnant women.
In fact, academic research indicates that all women are eating less seafood because of the imbalanced EPA-FDA advisory.
The low seafood intake levels advised in the current EPA-FDA guidance imply – erroneously – that there's evidence of harm from exceeding those levels.
Senators Gillibrand and Coburn want a response from the FDA within 30 days, detailing its plans to update the 2004 advisory to be consistent with the new USDA/HHS dietary guidelines.
Their bipartisan campaign for change echoes findings of the FDA's own 2009 draft report, which supported lifting the 12-oz-per-week limit currently advised to children and pregnant/nursing mothers.
For our coverage of that landmark report – which for mysterious reasons remains a draft – see “FDA Analysis Supports More Fish for Moms and Kids”.
Senators' letter echoes experts' urgings
Last year, two renowned brain-nutrition researchers – Professors Thomas Brenna of Cornell University and Michael Crawford of London Metropolitan University – urged the FDA to raise the maximum amount of lower-mercury seafood the agency recommends for young children and pregnant/nursing women.
As they wrote to FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D., “Recent studies indicate that infants with mothers who ate seafood 2-3 times each week during pregnancy and breastfeeding have better eye and brain development than those whose mothers limited or avoided their consumption of fish.”
Sadly, they didn't even get a reply from Dr. Hamburg.
And last fall, a summit meeting of omega-3 experts urged an end to unfounded fears of seafood, noting its potential to keep children from reaching their full potential. For more on that, see “Experts Seek an End to Fishy U.S. Advice for Mothers, Children”.
The text of Senators Gillibrand and Coburn's letter is shown below:
Honorable Margaret A. Hamburg, M.D.
Food and Drug Administration
10903 New Hampshire Avenue
Silver Spring, MD, 20993
Dear Dr. Hamburg,
We are writing to urge the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to review and update the 2004 FDA advisory, “What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish,” to provide consistent guidance with the new USDA Dietary Guidelines.
While the guidance is in many ways medically accurate, the recommendations communicate an overly risk-averse, precautionary principle that has led to unhealthy reductions in seafood consumption among pregnant women.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), government guidance to limit seafood consumption during pregnancy could be harmful to fetal development. Seafood contains beneficial nutrients such as omega-3s and lean protein. In addition to protecting heart health, omega-3s make up a major part of the brain.
Recent studies indicate that infants with mothers who ate seafood 2-3 times each week during pregnancy and breastfeeding have better eye and brain development than those whose mothers limited or avoided their consumption of fish.
Another study found that women who ate 12 ounces or less of seafood a week were more likely to have children with verbal or other communication problems at age 3, as well as trouble with fine motor skills and behavior problems by ages 7-8.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School similarly found that seafood consumption is important to fetal and child development. In their study, compared with women who ate the least fish, women with the highest fish intake (2 ounces per day on average) had children 25% more likely to have higher developmental scores at 6 months and almost 30% more likely to have higher scores at 18 months.
On January 31, 2011, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGAs).
The latest DGAs are “based on the most recent scientific evidence review” and are a critical component for setting federal nutrition policy. The DGAs recommend at least 8 ounces of seafood per week. Unfortunately, seafood consumption has dropped down to an average of 1.89 ounces per week, according to a 2008 FDA survey, largely because of the agency's overly risk-averse advisory.
The new DGAs find “the benefits of consuming seafood far outweigh the risks, even for pregnant women,” and emphasizes “the nutritional value of seafood is of particular importance during fetal growth and development, as well as in early infancy and childhood.” The guidance goes on to recommend obstetricians and pediatricians “provide guidance to women who are pregnant or breastfeeding to help them make healthy food choices that include seafood.”
Unfortunately, FDA's advisory is working at odds with this recommendation. The American public, media and health professionals look to FDA as the most reliable source for dietary advice on seafood.
We respectfully request a response within the next 30 days indicating the plans your agency has for updating the 2004 advisory to be consistent with the new USDA/HHS dietary guidelines. Thank you for your consideration.
Tom Coburn, M.D., United States Senator
Kirsten Gillibrand, United States Senator