Oct. 17, 2006 -- The health advantages of eating seafood outweigh the risks for most Americans, a report by government-sponsored experts concludes.
The report was issued Tuesday by the Institute of Medicine (IOM). Its conclusions could help lay to rest ongoing fears that contamination from pollutants like methyl mercury and microbes like bacteria and viruses make seafood consumption unsafe.
Still, experts repeated warnings from the FDA that women who are pregnant or may become pregnant or are breastfeeding, and children up to age 12, limit their intake of some seafood and avoid others altogether.
The seafood industry has complained that such warnings have driven much of the public away from consuming fish, though it is touted as a high-protein, low-saturated-fat food source. The IOM panel issued the report at the request of a division the U.S. Department of Commerce, which promotes American business interests domestically and overseas.
"The average person can consume more fish than they do," says Susan M. Krebs-Smith, PhD, a panelist who is chief of the risk factor monitoring and methods branch of the National Cancer Institute.
Some studies have concluded that regular seafood consumption can cut heart disease risk by virtue of omega-3 fatty acids in fish and some shellfish. But though it acknowledged those studies, the IOM panel warned that the cardiovascular benefits of eating fish remain by and large unproven.
The report did not take into account a new Harvard University study, published in this week's issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association, concluding that regularly eating salmon and other fish high in omega-3 fatty acids can cut risk of death from heart disease by more than a third.
The study, based on a review of previous research, also concludes that the benefits of eating salmon on the heart greatly outweigh what some studies have pegged as an increased cancer risk owing to dioxin contamination found in farm-raised fish.
"If you consume a variety [of fish], then you’re not going to get a high intake of anything" toxic, says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, a researcher who conducted the study and briefed reporters today in Washington.
Both the Mozaffarian and the IOM experts say they agree with FDA guidelines issued in 2004 urging women who are pregnant, may become pregnant, or are breastfeeding to limit consumption of most fish to 12 ounces per week.
The advisory, which also applies to children under 12, was issued amid concerns that methyl mercury contamination could put fetuses and young children at risk for brain development problems.
The FDA also urged those women to eat no more than 6 ounces of canned "white" albacore tuna per week and to avoid entirely four fish species -- shark, swordfish, tilefish, and king mackerel -- because of high mercury levels. The magazine Consumer Reports earlier this year recommended that pregnant women avoid canned tuna altogether.
Janice Oliver, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, says the agency is conducting a study looking at the risks and benefits of fish in the amounts consumed by the U.S. population.
The government warnings led industry groups to complain that consumers are getting mixed messages.
"We really need to address the fact that consumers are confused about this," says Anne Forristall Luke, president of the U.S. Tuna Foundation.
The report criticized federal agencies for not doing enough to balance warnings with messages about benefits.
"We feel that there needs to be a more coordinated effort," says Malden C. Nesheim, PhD, a professor emeritus of nutrition at Cornell University and chair of the IOM panel. "We just said, get your act together."
But environmental groups criticize the panel for recommending what it says is an overly complicated algorithm for crafting risk-and-benefit messages for the public.
Jacqueline Savitz, director of the pollution campaign at the environmental group Oceana, says retailers should be urged to post signs reflecting warnings for younger women and children. Some chains, including Whole Foods and Safeway, have begun using the warnings, Savitz says.
"These guys are complicating it," she tells WebMD. "In the meantime, women will not be getting this important message."