Something’s Fishy on Federal Dietary Committee
By Amy Lanou, Ph.D., and Patrick Sullivan
From the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to the European Union’s Food Safety Authority, government agencies around the world are issuing increasingly urgent warnings that mercury-contaminated fish pose a serious threat to public health.
Like lead, mercury is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in the body and can wreak havoc on the brain and nervous system. Women and children are especially vulnerable. Indeed, one in six women of childbearing age already has enough mercury in her blood to threaten the health of a developing fetus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
So it was especially curious when the U.S. Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee recommended that Americans should eat more fish—already our main source of the toxic material. For months, the panel has gathered in Washington, D.C., to refine the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which form the basis of all federal and many private nutritional programs.
The panel’s draft recommendation is that Americans consume eight to nine ounces of fish a week—an amount that could dramatically increase the risk of birth defects and neurological disease.
Proponents defend fish consumption as a boon to cardiovascular health. That’s because some species contain omega-3 fatty acids, which may help guard against heart disease. But that argument isn’t convincing, because walnuts and flax seeds, for example, provide a similar benefit with none of the risk. And while Americans currently eat an average of only one serving of fish a week, fish consumption is already our primary source of mercury exposure. Some of the most polluted species—such as albacore tuna—are also the most popular with consumers.
As a result, EPA scientists recently reported that as many as 630,000 babies born each year may have been exposed as fetuses to unsafe levels of mercury. In March 2004, the FDA and the EPA teamed up to issue a national health advisory warning that children and women of childbearing age should limit mercury intake by eating no more than six ounces of albacore tuna a week.
But even that warning was deemed too lax by a key scientific advisor to the two agencies. Vas Aposhian, a toxicologist and professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Arizona, says that mercury levels in albacore tuna are so high the fish should be avoided completely.
Dr. Aposhian, who resigned his advisory position in protest, also says the food industry exerted influence to water down the mercury warning. Notable in the current Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee are many members with financial ties to food companies.
The mechanisms of mercury toxicity are still being investigated, and scientists are trying to determine the risks posed by even low levels of exposure. But one thing is clear: The government should help consumers choose nutritious diets, not put children at risk by encouraging them and potential mothers to eat polluted foods. Disseminating information on healthier plant-derived sources of omega-3 fatty acids would be a smart place to start.