May 29, 2024

FDA Updates Fish Advisory for Pregnant Women, Others

The Food and Drug Administration has updated their advice on how much fish pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and young children should eat, considering that much of that food is contaminated with mercury. This draft will replace the current advice issued ten years ago.

Pregnant Woman Holding BellySeveral advocacy groups, including Environmental Working Group, have been critical of the government’s apparent lack of information and response on this issue. The FDA’s last advice in 2011 told pregnant women to double their intake of fish to get more omega-3 fatty acids. This recommendation put pregnant women at risk of consuming harmful amounts of mercury.

Mercury is actually present in food in the form of methylmercury. This neurotoxic compound adversely affects a developing fetus’ brain and neurological systems, which can impair “cognitive thinking, memory, attention, language, and fine motor and visual spatial skills” according to the EPA. 

The FDA’s advice is to: “Eat 8 to 12 ounces of a variety of fish* each week from choices that are lower in mercury. The nutritional value of fish is important during growth and development before birth, in early infancy for breastfed infants, and in childhood.” That works out to 2 or 3 servings of fish a week. Choose fish lower in mercury, such as salmon, shrimp, pollock, light canned tuna, tilapia, catfish, and cod. Avoid tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel, since they are the species with the highest mercury content. And limit white (albacore) tuna consumption to 6 ounces per week.

In addition, if you consume fish that is caught from streams, rivers, and lakes, pay attention to fish advisories from local and state governments. If there is no advice available, limit these fish to 6 ounces a week (young children should only eat 1 to 2 ounces a week and not eat other fish that week). Some local waters have little to no monitoring, so pollution levels and mercury content of the fish is not known.

There is a chart at the FDA web site that lists the omega-3 fatty acid and Docosahexaenoic (DHA) content in fish species, along with the micrograms of mercury in each for 4 ounces of cooked fish. The common varieties of fish highest in mercury content include marlin, bluefin & albacore tuna, and orange roughy. The lowest include sardines, Atlantic, Chinook, and Coho salmon, oysters, clams, and tilapia. Eat a variety of fish and watch portion sizes.

And remember to avoid raw fish, as well as undercooked meat, poultry, and eggs. Always cook these foods to safe internal temperatures as measured by a food thermometer for food safety reasons.


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