WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administration is updating its advice for pregnant women on the appropriate levels of mercury in seafood. Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says the agency won’t require mercury labels on seafood packages.
In a wide-ranging interview Friday with The Associated Press, Hamburg said the agency will update guidance on mercury in different varieties of seafood and what that means, a long-awaited move aimed at helping women better understand what to eat when they’re pregnant.
“It’s an advisory, not an effort to mandate labeling,” Hamburg said. “Different seafood products do contain different levels of mercury, and so different seafood products can be rated in terms of levels of mercury.”
Eating fish is part of a heart-healthy diet, and many types are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids that are important for brain development.
But fish also can absorb small amounts of mercury, a neurotoxin, from streams and oceans — and a small number of varieties harbor higher levels.
For most people, accumulating mercury from eating seafood isn’t a health risk. But for a decade, the FDA has warned that pregnant women, those who may become pregnant, and young children avoid certain types of high-mercury fish because of concern that too much could harm a developing brain.
Consumer groups have sued the agency, saying the warnings weren’t clear enough about what to avoid, and seeking labeling to help so that shoppers wouldn’t have to remember which products are OK during pregnancy or for youngsters.
“We can’t ask consumers to memorize two different lists of fish,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, one of the groups that sued.
DeWaal said the new advisory will be an improvement if it gives consumers better information, especially if that information could be kept at fish counters in grocery stores and retail outlets.
The seafood industry says the government shouldn’t look at mercury by itself, but at the benefits of seafood. Jennifer McGuire of the National Fisheries Institute says the original FDA guidelines warning against some types of fish for pregnant women just served to decrease overall seafood intake.
“That would be very concerning if there was a ‘good fish, bad fish’ list,” she said.
The government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines incorporated FDA’s warnings to say that pregnant or breastfeeding women should consume 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of seafood per week. But it said they should not eat tilefish, shark, swordfish and king mackerel because of the mercury content and it advised limiting white albacore tuna to six ounces a week.