In an interview last week, FDA secretary Margaret Hamburg stated that the FDA will soon update its recommendations for pregnant women with respect to fish consumption and mercury levels.
What’s this all about?
Large predator fish such as tuna and swordfish accumulate pollutants in the ocean over the course of their lives, which is measured in years. The most dangerous chemical is methyl mercury. When we eat these fish, we ingest it. Excess consumption of methyl mercury can lead to mercury poisoning – permanent brain damage and damage to other organs. Pregnant women and small children are most susceptible.
The thresholds for safe consumption were set by the EPA and FDA in the past, but some groups have been concerned that these thresholds were not safe enough. Consumer Reports urged the FDA to add warning labels to canned tuna, but was met with a nay. Now comes the FDA’s announcement that it will update recommendations, but still won’t require labeling.
As usual, the FDA is caught between a rock and a hard place. Instead of looking out for consumers, it has to appease politicians and the lobbies that support them. While labeling mercury levels on relevant fish products would best serve pregnant women and parents of young children, it may impacts sales of fish products. The relevant aquaculture and fishing lobbies will not stand for that. As a result we the public will need to figure it out for ourselves.
What to do at the supermarket
The bigger the fish, the more mercury it has deposited in its flesh. So stay away from shark meat, swordfish, king mackerel, and albacore tuna. Small fry, such as sardines and anchovies, are an excellent source of protein and omega-3, without the bonus toxins. This is because they live for a short period of time before being harvested, so their body does not have time to accumulate mercury.
Canned tuna is by far the largest single source of mercury in the US diet. It accounts for nearly one-third of total exposure. Our recommendations:
- Choose light tuna (Skipjack, Bluefin, Yellowfin, Ahi)
- Stay away from white tuna (Albacore, Longfin). Light tuna has just one third the amount of mercury as white tuna
- Always prefer tuna packed in water, not oil
- For kids under the age of 8, limit tuna consumption to once a month
- For older children – twice a month is fine.