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EPA and FDA Issue Final Advice Regarding Fish Consumption for Women and Parents

On Wednesday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued final advice regarding fish consumption. This recommendation is geared toward helping women who are pregnant or may become pregnant.

The agencies’ advice will also help breastfeeding mothers and parents of young children in making better choices when it comes to fish that are healthy and safe to eat.

safe fish consumption

Fish Consumption Best Choices

To help consumers understand the types of fish to select, the agencies created an easy-to-use reference chart that sorts 62 types of fish into three categories:

  • “Best Choices” (Eat two to three servings a week)
  • “Good Choices” (Eat one serving a week)
  • “Choices to Avoid” (Contain highest mercury levels)

About 90 percent of fish consumed in the U.S. fall under the “Best Choices” category.

The FDA analyzed fish consumption data and found that 50 percent of pregnant women surveyed ate far less than the amount recommended — fewer than 2 ounces a week.  The FDA and EPA suggest pregnant women should eat at least a minimum level of fish “because the nutritional benefits of eating fish are important for growth and development during pregnancy and early childhood.”

The agencies’ advice recommends 2-3 servings of lower-mercury fish per week — or 8 to 12 ounces.  Unfortunately, according to the FDA and EPA all fish contain at least traces of mercury.  The small traces of mercury can be harmful to the brain and nervous system if a person is exposed to too much of it over time.

The Final Advice

The FDA and EPA’s final advice recommends the maximum level of fish to eat is 12 ounces per week. The new advice is consistent with the 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

For adults, a typical serving is 4 ounces of fish — measured before cooking. Serving sizes for children should be smaller and adjusted for their age and total calorie needs.  The agencies’ also recommend that children eat fish once or twice a week, selected from a variety of fish types.

FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Stephen Ostroff, M.D. offers the following advice.

“Fish are an important source of protein and other nutrients for young children and women who are or may become pregnant, or are breastfeeding. This advice clearly shows the great diversity of fish in the U.S. market that they can consume safely.  This new, clear and concrete advice is an excellent tool for making safe and healthy choices when buying fish.”

Fish choices that are lower in mercury include some of the most commonly eaten fish — like canned light tuna, cod, shrimp, catfish, pollock, tilapia, and salmon.

The updated advice cautions parents of young children and women to avoid seven types of fish that typically have higher mercury levels.

Fish with High Mercury Levels:

  • Tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico
  • Shark
  • Swordfish
  • Orange roughy
  • Bigeye tuna
  • Marlin
  • King mackerel

Additional Precautions

EPA Director for Water Science and Technology, Elizabeth Southerland, Ph.D. offers a brief comment about this final advice.

“It’s all about eating and enjoying fish of the right kind and in the right amounts.  This joint advice not only provides information for fish consumers who buy from local markets, but it also contains good information for people who catch their own fish or are provided fish caught by friends or relatives.”

For people catching fish, the agencies highly recommends to “check for local advisories where they are fishing and gauge their fish consumption based on any local and state advisories for those waters.”

In addition, consumers should clean and trim the fat and skin of the fish they catch. Locally caught fish may contain contaminants besides mercury.  Proper trimming and cooking can help in reducing contaminants in fish.  For example, broiling instead of frying can reduce some contaminants by letting fat drip away from the fish.

What Parents and Pregnant Women Should Know About Eating Fish

fish consumption

About the author: George Zapo, CPH is certified in Public Health Promotion and Education (Kent State University). George focuses on providing informative articles promoting healthy behavior and lifestyles.

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