WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government said on Monday it was holding firm to its recommendations that pregnant and breast-feeding women limit how much fish and other seafood they eat and avoid certain types with high levels of mercury.
The two agencies that have set government policy on the subject — the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency — have declined to alter their recommendations that these women eat no more than 12 ounces of fish weekly.
Their stance comes a week after a health advocacy coalition that received funding from the fish industry and 14 experts on October 4 urged these women to eat more fish.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other government agencies that are members of the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition have actively distanced themselves from the coalition’s new advice.
Some environmental activists said the coalition and its experts had tried to mislead women with the recommendations.
The coalition said the nutritional boost for infant brain development and other benefits outweighed any risks from trace amounts of the toxin mercury in fish and seafood — directly contradicting government advice.
The FDA and EPA have advised limits on fish and other seafood consumption because some contain levels of mercury that may harm the developing nervous systems of fetuses and infants.
“The joint EPA/FDA fish consumption advisories are based on sound science, and the agency recommends pregnant women continue to follow the current guidelines,” EPA spokeswoman Suzanne Ackerman said by e-mail in response to an inquiry.
FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said the agency also is sticking with its existing recommendations.
Fatty fish and shellfish are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, key for brain development. But they can also contain mercury, which destroys brain and nerve cells.
In March 2004, the FDA and EPA recommended that women who are pregnant, might become pregnant or are breast-feeding eat no more than 12 ounces weekly, two average meals, of types of fish and shellfish lower in mercury.
They advised not eating shark, swordfish, tilefish or king mackerel because they had high levels of mercury.
The coalition, however, said women should eat no less than 12 ounces per week of fish and other seafood including salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel, saying eating fish is the best way to gain the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. They did not set an upper limit for how much should be eaten.
Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group, said if women followed this advice there could be an epidemic of mercury poisoning among America’s children.
“It’s pretty clear that this was nothing but a public relations effort on the part of the fish industry to confuse people about the hazards of mercury and to encourage women to eat the products they sell regardless of how contaminated they are with mercury,” Wiles said in a telephone interview.
The CDC, the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Health Resources and Services Administration all said they have collaborated in the past with the coalition but did not endorse or help formulate the new fish consumption advice.
“We continue to support FDA and EPA on their recommendations,” CDC spokeswoman Courtney Lenard said.
Judy Meehan, executive director of the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition, said the National Fisheries Institute, an industry group, gave the coalition $60,000 to help publicize the recommendations and a total of $16,000 more to the 14 outside experts who helped.
Meehan said this funding does not undermine the integrity of the recommendations. “Our position is that fish is critical for brain development. There’s a lot of science supporting that,” Meehan said in a telephone interview.
Non-fish sources of omega-3 fatty acids include leafy green vegetables, walnuts and flaxseed oil.