Consumer Reports to FDA: Bring Back List of Lower-Mercury Fish

FDA calls for pregnant women and young mothers to eat more lower mercury seafood but deletes helpful chart

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) wants women of childbearing age and young children to eat more fish that are lower in mercury. But Consumer Reports is taking issue with some of the FDA's recommendations and actions.

Earlier this summer, the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommended that pregnant and breastfeeding women, women planning on becoming pregnant, and growing children should eat about two or three servings of a variety of fish each week. The agencies made that recommendation because fish is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids and many vitamins and minerals.

One problem, however, is that many fish contain high levels of mercury, which may be harmful to both mother and child.

While the FDA has stated that certain amounts of some types of tuna are safe for women and kids to eat, Consumer Reports disagrees. Consumer Reports also wants the FDA to repost a chart detailing fish with lower levels of mercury.

The federal fish consumption guidelines advise against eating four specific fish with the highest levels of mercury — swordfish, shark, king mackerel and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico. Instead, the guidelines recommended that women of childbearing age and young children eat lower-mercury fish like salmon, shrimp, pollock, tilapia, catfish, cod and light canned tuna.

In a recent statement, Consumer Reports agreed that those groups should avoid eating seafood high in mercury but disagreed with the federal guidelines on how much tuna women and kids may eat.

"Pregnant women should avoid eating any tuna," Consumer Reports noted.

According to Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, Medical Advisory Board Member of the non-profit Nutritional Magnesium Association, "We have contaminated lakes and oceans with mercury to the extent that eating canned tuna on a daily basis can elevate the mercury in your blood, so advisories are important for what type of fish to eat and how much. Presently, I would not advise women to increase consumption of fish because of the mercury issue."

Dr. Dean went on to explain why pregnant women would want to minimize the amount of higher-mercury fish that they eat.

"Mercury accumulates in the body with every amount you ingest," Dr. Dean said. "When pregnant, this mercury can be transmitted to the fetus through the umbilical cord. Any amount of mercury can be damaging, especially to the developing brain of the baby."

To make it easier for young mothers and pregnant women to identify the safest choices when following the FDA's advice to eat more fish, the agency posted a chart online that included a listing of 32 different types of seafood with lower levels of mercury.

But in early August, the FDA took down the version of the chart that listed fish according to their mercury levels. That chart was replaced by a single table that lists all types of fish together, regardless of how much mercury they contain. According to Consumer Reports, this new table leaves "it to consumers to decipher which [fish] contain levels that might pose too much risk."

In response to the FDA action, food safety experts at Consumer Reports are calling for the FDA to bring back the original chart with multiple tables "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."

Dr. Dean recommended that people use the Mercury Policy Project's "Guide to Mercury Levels in Different Varieties of Fish and Shellfish" to make an informed decision about which fish to eat on a regular basis.

Review Date: 
August 21, 2014
Last Updated:
November 24, 2014