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FDA Updating Seafood Recommendations

Katlyn Joy |10, June 2014


The Food and Drug Administration will be updating its guidelines regarding mercury in seafood, but Commissioner Margaret Hamburg says these updates will not include labeling requirements.

"It's an advisory, not an effort to mandate labeling. Different seafood products do contain different levels of mercury, and so different seafood products can be rated in terms of levels of mercury," Hamburg said.

People concerned with eating a more nutritious diet know fish is a rich source of omega 3. These fatty acids are connected with a number of health benefits, including brain development.

However, fish are also a source of a less desirable substance; mercury. Fish absorb from the water in their environment mercury, which is a neurotoxin. However, not all fish have equal levels of mercury.

In 2004, the FDA issued an advisory, "What You Need to Know About Mercury in Fish and Shellfish. "This publication was specifically aimed at pregnant women, women who may become pregnant, and parents of young children to warn them of the dangers of high-mercury levels in some fish that may cause harm to a developing brain.

In March 2014, consumer groups sued the FDA for failing to respond to a 2011 petition in a timely fashion. The petition filed by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and the Mercury Police Project asked for the government agency to provide consumers with clear information about which fish contain high levels of mercury. To accomplish this, the consumer groups wanted signs at market counters and labels on packaged seafood detailing levels of mercury of different seafood.

The FDA essentially broke federal law when it did not respond to the petition within a 6-month window.

The attorney for Earthjustice, Summer Kupau-Odo, stated, "FDA's failure to respond to our petition is frustrating and disappointing. Citizens expect that the public health agency charged with ensuring that food is safe and properly labeled will respond to their valid food safety concerns in a timely manner, especially when the health of some of the most vulnerable members of our community—infants and children—is at risk."

Consumer groups found the 2004 advisory too vague, leading to opinions such as that of Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the CSPI. "Consumers deserve to have the information they need to enjoy heart-healthy seafood while avoiding dangerous mercury—particularly if they are pregnant or feeding young children. It's FDA's responsibility to provide that information, and it's long past time for the agency to do so."

Others are more concerned about fallout from fears about mercury, such as those from the National Fisheries Institute.

Jennifer McGuire of the Institute said the 2004 FDA advisory against certain fish for pregnant women only resulted in decrease in Americans eating seafood.

Mercury historically was linked to coal-fired power plants as well as small scale gold mining, and mercury that is airborne ends up being deposited into water ecosystems where it changes into methylmercury. Methylmercury is particularly harmful neurotoxin associated with lower IQs, learning disabilities, as well as impaired nervous systems and cognitive functioning.

The director of the Mercury Policy Project, Michael T. Bender, said, "The public--and especially at-risk groups such as pregnant women and heavy fish eaters--urgently need updated information. It is unconscionable that FDA continues to drag its feet when the latest science indicates a far greater methylmercury exposure risk than when the Agency developed its fish consumption advisory in 2004."

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommended limiting albacore tuna consumption by pregnant women to six ounces weekly. It also advised these women to not eat king mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish as they are known to be higher in mercury concentrations than other seafood.

Pregnant women and parents of young children have more reason to be updated on the latest research regarding mercury levels in fish and seafood, since they have the most vulnerable family members, both born and unborn. This is especially true since much has been said in the news recently on the value of adding more fish and seafood to the diet. Women raising families need to know the safety and health issues of mercury in foods.

Updated: June 10, 2014

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