Pregnant Moms Getting Fishy Advice
Much of the fish you eat is contaminated with mercury, a toxic
element that finds its way from factories and power plants into rivers, lakes,
and oceans. This has become a major public health issue in the U.S., but one
that's as murky as the depths from which fisherman raise their catch.
Studies have shown that eating plenty of fish is healthy for
pregnant women and their babies. But mercury can harm the developing brain of a
baby whose mother eats too much contaminated fish, possibly causing learning
disabilities and other neurological problems. Scientists know that for a fact.
What's not clear, however, is exactly how much mercury is dangerous, and which
fish pregnant women should be warned about.
Last year, the FDA put out an advisory to pregnant women,
telling them not to eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish because
samples of these fish had shown dangerously high levels of mercury
But instead of thanking the FDA for the kind advice,
environmental activists and consumer watchdogs filleted the agency for failing
to mention tuna -- arguably the most popular seafood in the U.S. Tuna has
mercury in it. It doesn't have as much as the four fish mentioned in the
advisory, but it has enough to raise concerns for many about how much a
pregnant woman should eat.
Profits Over Public Health?
In February of this year, the Environmental Working Group
(EWG), a research organization in Washington, went public with information that
seems to finger the FDA in shady dealings regarding tuna's safety.
The FDA used focus groups to decide how to phrase the message
about mercury in fish. One document shown to women in the focus groups
mentioned limiting the amount of tuna they should eat during pregnancy. The
limit was set at 12 oz. a week of canned tuna, or 3 oz. of tuna steak a
But FDA documents show that before drafting the final version
of the advisory, agency officials met with tuna industry executives, who
allegedly urged the agency to drop tuna from the advisory.
In response to the EWG's accusations, an FDA committee will
meet this spring to review the advisory and the process that led up to it. But
that's not to say they're admitting to any lapse in judgment. "FDA does
stand behind the process," an agency spokesman says. "But we do
understand the confusion that has arisen."
Going on what was learned in the focus groups, the FDA argues,
most women would avoid tuna altogether if they were told to limit how much they
eat. That means they would miss out on the health benefits of tuna, and the
$6-billion-a-year tuna industry might suffer unnecessary losses. The EWG
doesn't buy that explanation, saying that transcripts of the focus group
sessions tell a different story -- that women were eager for information and
ready to follow guidelines set down on paper. That's a matter of
interpretation, but EWG spokeswoman Laura Chapin says, "The problem is
using focus groups to determine if you should communicate" certain
safety information. Instead, she says, the purpose should have been to find the
best way to tell women what they have a right to know.