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Will new information change the government's seafood advisory?

By Clare Leschin-Hoar
August 01, 2010

When daytime television host Dr. Mehmet Oz took on the subject of methylmercury in seafood in an episode of "The Dr. Oz Show" that originally aired in late January, it grabbed the attention of seafood buyers and sellers. The National Fisheries Institute publicly criticized the segment for multiple inaccuracies, and challenged the show's broad claims that mercury in fish was a serious concern for the general population.

And it's just recently that the six-year-old joint seafood advisory has come under increased scrutiny. Critics say the seafood-consumption message has been muddled by consumers and media reports to include people beyond its intended demographic. As a result, people outside the at-risk group have embraced the health advisory as their own, and have incorrectly applied the mercury-consumption message outside the four species singled out in the original Food and Drug Administration/Environmental Protection Agency advisory. They say that misinformation means too many consumers, including pregnant women, are not getting the health benefits seafood consumption provides.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines are updated every five years, industry experts say they're at a standstill waiting for the federal government to reassess the science when it comes to seafood consumption.

"The science is clear: The benefits are overwhelming in terms of eating fish, and there's a real need for clarification and encouragement from the government," says NFI's registered dietitian Jennifer McGuire. "The truth of the matter is, the advice about eating fish is very simple and very straightforward. For the general population, there are no commercial fish to avoid. We need to be clear with consumers. When you don't eat fish, heart disease and brain development risks are introduced."

It's an issue the FDA is still examining.

In January 2009, the FDA published a risk-and-benefit 
 assessment of fish con sumption, focusing on fetal 
neurodevelopmental effects, coronary heart disease and stroke. The draft report was open for public comment, but remains under review more than 18 months later.

It's that lengthy review period that has scientists like J. Thomas Brenna, professor of human nutrition at Cornell University, worried that the report has been pocket-vetoed by the FDA. That concern prompted him to publish an open letter in late May, co-signed by professor Michael Crawford of London Metropolitan University, urging the FDA to move forward with the report.

"The core problem is that the benefits of fish could not be appropriately considered in 2004. Current science has advanced to the point where it is no longer consistent with the recommendation to limit consumption of all fish to a maximum of 12 ounces per week for pregnant and lactating women and women who may become pregnant," they wrote in the open letter to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg.

It's the very consequences of inadequate fish consumption that could be significant, says Brenna. Both Brenna and Crawford last month joined 125 scientists and nutritionists from around the world in a petition that calls upon the FDA to update its current seafood-consumption advisory.

Their concerns are echoed by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Organization, which published a joint report in May urging governments worldwide to do a better job conveying the benefits of eating seafood. Benefits include a reduction in risk of death from heart disease, and increased neurodevelopment in infants whose mothers consume fish, according to the WHO and FAO report.

The joint report was swiftly followed by findings of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee in June, whose recommendations impact the USDA's food pyramid. The committee report confirms that Americans aren't eating enough seafood, and says that consumption of two 4-ounce servings of seafood a week is associated with reduced cardiac mortality, and that increased consumption during pregnancy and lactation raises important omega-3 fatty acid levels, which can improve infant brain development.

"The health benefits from consuming a variety of cooked seafood outweigh the risks associated with exposure to methylmercury and persistent organic pollutants, provided that the types and sources of seafood to be avoided by some consumers are clearly communicated to consumers," says the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report.

When the FDA will come out with its final risk-and-benefit report is unclear. Sebastian Cianci, a spokesperson for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, says the organization is still in the process of revising the risk-and-benefit assessment.

"We're doing a very different kind of assessment than we did before when we were strictly looking at risk. We're looking at the benefits of consuming seafood. There's a net effect - risk and benefit. Historically, we focused a lot on risk. What we're doing now is looking at the benefits in there as well," says Cianci. "We've been very diligent. It can take many years. This is 
a very large document, and we're trying to be very 

But don't expect the report to change the joint FDA/EPA consumer advisory on methylmercury and fish consumption, he warns.

"This report is looking at a lot of new research that has come out since the 2004 advisory. This is not proposing we revise the advisory. It's a stand-alone document. The FDA is conducting the risk-and-benefit assessment to better understand the health net effects of consuming commercial fish for health endpoints for which mercury is a potential risk factor," he says.

Gavin Gibbons, NFI spokesperson, says the rough-draft report was a good starting point.

"On the one side, you have the WHO saying, 'Hey governments, do a better job communicating.' And on the other side, you do have an FDA report that does do a good job communicating, but it's stuck in regulatory limbo," he says. " When you have a petition started by Dr. 
 Brenna, the Dietary Guidelines Steering Committee talking about fish and seafood, and the WHO and UN talking about fish and health, there's an opportunity to have the best, most recent science coming together in front of consumers."

But while those in the industry wait for FDA action, understanding the public health effects of mercury continues to be a hot topic in the press, ranging from reports on methylmercury levels in restaurant and supermarket sushi to actor Jeremy Piven's 2008 "sushi-gate." The NFI and FDA agree, there have been no documented cases of mercury poisoning as the result of the normal consumption of commercial seafood in the United States, although cases of mercury toxicity from fish consumption are less clear.

In May, Richard Gelfond, CEO and director of IMAX Corp., established a fund for Mercury Related Research and Outreach with a $1 million gift to Stony Brook University, after the executive was diagnosed with high mercury levels.

Dr. Nicholas Fisher, distinguished professor in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences (SoMAS) and director of the Consortium for Inter-Disciplinary Environmental Research (CIDER) at Stony Brook University, says mercury toxicity when blood mercury levels are very high can in some cases lead to symptoms like lack of coordination, tingling or burning sensation in feet, impaired thinking abil ity, memory loss and more.

"Some [symptoms] are very vague. It's hard to nail that down to mercury, but there's no question that some individuals who eat a lot of fish, especially the wrong kind of fish, have higher mercury levels in their blood stream. At what concentration are people affected varies between individuals and their general health, genetic susceptibility, etc.," says Fisher.

"Yes, seafood is good for you, but some seafood comes with risk. Generally speaking, mercury is one of the most worrisome contaminants in the ecosystem," continues Fisher. "There is very solid evidence that mercury is almost unique among all the metals. It displays pronounced food-chain biomagnification. The higher in the food chain you go, the more enriched is the mercury in the tissue."

Tim Fitzgerald, spokesman for the Environmental Defense Fund, which provides health-advisory information to groups like Seafood Watch, Blue Ocean Institute and FishWise, says while the 2004 FDA/EPA seafood advisory isn't perfect, scrapping it in favor of something that says "eat more fish" isn't in the public's best interest either.

"In the case of NFI, they have an interest in maintaining the image that their products are safe and people should eat them, and I don't fault them for that. But when there's evidence of a public health risk, the academic and public health community should share that information. There are a lot of low-contaminant, healthy, sustainable fish. Health and sustainability go hand-in-hand. That's what we want people to buy, eat and enjoy. It doesn't have to be one or the other," says Fitzgerald.

Dr. Michael Gochfeld, professor of Environmental Toxicology at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, shares a similar view.

"I think the FDA's message for people who eat fish once a month or less - that eating more fish is probably a good idea. However, for people who already eat fish several times a week, that's the group at risk for taking in too much mercury, and needs to watch which kinds of fish to eat. The more fish you eat, the more attention you have to pay to the low-mercury fish like sardines or salmon," says Gochfeld.

But establishing a marketing plan purely around a future FDA report is probably unlikely for most 
purveyors, though consuming more fish is on the radar for seafood sellers like Michael Dulock, managing partner at processor and retailer Concord Prime & Fish in Concord, Mass.

"To say that people are concerned about the biomagnification of mercury in our seafood would be putting it lightly. As a retailer, the onus falls on me to help guide consumers, to steer them toward healthful choices," says Dulock.

The challenge remains for seafood buyers and sellers to continue answering consumer questions about seafood, while at the same time not overwhelming them.

"The bigger problem here is that the message is forever changing; think margarine-butter or any other radical recommendation change we have seen in our lifetime. I do think that there should be some guideline for consumers, something that warns about the effects without scaring them away from seafood altogether," says Dulock.


Clare Leschin-Hoar is a freelance writer in Mansfield, Mass.


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