Seafood Shoppers Confused by Mercury Warnings

ORLANDO, Fla. Consumption of seafood would likely increase if the government changed its methylmercury warning to reflect both the risks and benefits of eating fish, experts said at a seafood industry conference here. The Food and Drug Administration should change its 2001 methylmercury warning that advises pregnant and nursing women not to eat certain fish that may contain high levels of mercury,

ORLANDO, Fla. — Consumption of seafood would likely increase if the government changed its methylmercury warning to reflect both the risks and benefits of eating fish, experts said at a seafood industry conference here.

The Food and Drug Administration should change its 2001 methylmercury warning that advises pregnant and nursing women not to eat certain fish that may contain high levels of mercury, the speakers said, and new research on omega-3 fatty acids, reduction of heart disease and stroke should be taken into account.

“The FDA advisory could hurt public health if people don't understand it,” said Joshua Cohen, senior researcher at Tufts University-New England Medical Center.

The warning, along with conflicting media reports and advice from health professionals, is confusing consumers, prompting some to cut back or stop eating fish.

In an August 2006 online survey of more than 1,000 Americans, University of Delaware researchers found that 61% had heard something negative about eating seafood. At the same time, 85% had heard something positive about seafood.

Of those who had negative information, 57% said they had heard that fish contains mercury, and 43% did not hear or did not remember anything specific. Forty-seven percent of the positive messages were about omega-3 fatty acids and healthy fats associated with seafood, while 53% of respondents said they did not remember specific positive messages.

“There is confusion about messages,” said Doris Hicks, seafood technology specialist for the University of Delaware.

In addition, 3% of those surveyed said they do not eat seafood, and 9% said they used to, but do not any more. At the same time, a 2006 Harvard Medical School study found that eating seafood twice a week may reduce individuals' risk of deaths from heart attacks by 36%, and the overall rate of death by 17%.

“Limiting consumption without understanding risk could have unintended consequences, especially where the food may convey health benefits,” Philip Spiller, the FDA's director of the Office of Seafood, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, told attendees at the National Fisheries Institute's 2007 “Seafood in Perspective” conference.

CFSAN's Methylmercury Project, which has been evaluating old and new scientific data on seafood and mercury in recent years, is expected to complete its work this year. The effort may include performing an assessment that would weigh the risks vs. the benefits of fish consumption. The FDA will decide whether to let the project perform a different risk assessment, and that could lead to an eventual revision of the FDA's advice to consumers.

A risk assessment “would enable us to measure net effects, assessment of methylmercury in fish, and modify our advice as appropriate,” Spiller said.