Robert Sullivan  /  AFP-Getty Images
The government recommended limiting intake of some fish due to mercury levels, but stressed the benefits of seafood. Fresh salmon, shown here, is known to be low in mercury.
msnbc.com news services
updated 3/22/2004 12:05:09 PM ET 2004-03-22T17:05:09

Americans should eat their fish but be wary of it, too.

Shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish have too much mercury and should be off the menu for pregnant women, nursing mothers, children and women who may become pregnant, the U.S. government said Friday.

At the same time, fish represent an important part of a balanced diet, said Lester M. Crawford, deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

Americans hear conflicting information about what they should eat, and they have pressed for straightforward guidance on fish. “This advice is uniform, simplified and useful,” said Benjamin Grumbles, acting assistant administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

But consumer and environmental groups said the government had soft-pedaled the risk from eating large amounts of white tuna. “Tuna is a really popular fish, and some people eat a whole lot of it,” said Diana Zuckerman of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Children.

Crawford listed the three-part guidelines for women and children as:

  • Do not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury.
  • Eat up to 12 ounces — two average meals — per week of fish that are lower in mercury, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish.
  • Check local advisories to determine the safety of fish caught by family and friends. If no such advice is available, limit such fish to one six-ounce portion a week and don’t consume any other fish that week.
Video: Canned tuna guidelines issued

Children should be served smaller portions than adults, the agencies said, but they did not offer any age-specific guidelines.

While the report praised the benefits of light tuna it said albacore tuna should be limited to one serving a week because these older fish can be higher in mercury than the young tuna that go into the light version.

The method of preparing food makes no difference in its mercury level, said FDA scientist Dr. David Acheson. He also noted that processed fish such as fish sticks and fast-food fish sandwiches are usually made of pollock, which is low in mercury.

Women who are pregnant, nursing or may become pregnant should limit their mercury exposure because it can affect the developing brain and nervous system of their children. An EPA researcher has estimated about 630,000 U.S. children are born annually with unsafe levels of mercury in the blood.

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Pollution from industrial and other sources contaminates water and small fish that are then eaten by larger fish, concentrating the mercury that can affect people who eat the fish.

Are steps enough?
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., criticized the report, saying the Bush administration is “only making mild gestures to a problem that demands strong action. The scientific evidence by now is clear and undeniable about the risk of mercury exposure to women and children.”

The Environmental Working Group, an environmental organization and consumer advocacy group, contended the guidelines are not stringent enough and favor the interests of the coal and seafood industries at the expense of children.

The group said the FDA “has actually made a bad situation worse, by encouraging consumption of albacore tuna at clearly unsafe levels.”

There appeared to be dissent even among members of the FDA's advisory panel. According to the Washington Post, panel member Vas Aposhian, a University of Arizona toxicologist, stepped down Friday and criticized the panel's findings, saying it did not take into account some experts' view that children and pregnant women should avoid albacore altogether.

"We knew that wouldn't happen because of the pressure from the industry, but we certainly didn't think there should be a recommendation to eat six ounces of albacore," Aposhian said, according to the Post.

The Natural Resources Defense Council criticized the guidelines as not adequately warning parents of the danger of albacore tuna for children. It said the warnings are proof of the need to remove mercury from commerce.

Rebecca Goldburg of Environmental Defense agreed, saying that previous EPA testing methods would have indicated that children should eat albacore tuna just once a month, not once a week.

People not singled out in the guidelines, such as men, should include fish in their diets because of its health benefits as a good source of protein and heart-beneficial omega-3 compounds, Crawford said.

Fish has become increasingly popular in recent years because of its health benefits. The American Heart Association recommends people eat fish at least twice a week, even more often for those diagnosed with heart disease.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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