Fish Safety for Pregnant Women, Breastfeeding Mothers Outlined in New Guidelines

Amid concerns and confusion about the safety of consuming various different fish products by pregnant and breastfeeding women, federal health regulators have issued new guidelines designed to highlight the levels of mercury and types of fish considered safe to eat.

The guidance was released by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on January 18, geared toward pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and women who plan to become pregnant in the future, as well as young children.

The information provided helps women make informed choices concerning the health and safety of the fish they eat and feed to their children. It updates 2014 guidance issued by the agency, which called for consumers to eat 8 to 12 ounces of fish per week that are low in mercury. However, the guidance did not offer recommendations of what fish are low in mercury, leaving consumers to determine that information on their own.

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In the new guidance, consumers are offered a reference chart with 62 types of fish placed into three categories. The categories are intended to help women understand the safer types of fish to eat and those that are the least safe.

The three categories, include “best choices,” “good choices,” and “fish to avoid.” Consumers are encouraged to eat two to three servings a week from the “best choices” category, one serving per week from the “good choices” category, and to avoid eating fish from the “fish to avoid” category.

FDA officials indicate 90% of fish eaten in the U.S. are from the “best choices” category.

In addition to the guidelines, the FDA is also promoting a minimum level of fish consumption for women and children. They recommend women eat two to three servings  of low mercury fish per week, or about 8 to 12 ounces per week.

Roughly 50% of women surveyed consume fewer than two ounces of fish a week, much less than the amount recommend by health experts.

The agency highlighted the nutritional benefits of consuming fish are important for growth and development of the fetus during pregnancy and during early childhood.

All fish contain small levels of mercury, which can be harmful to the brain and nervous system if a person consumes too much over time. However, if consumers follow the guidance, taking care to select fish from the “best choices” category that are low in mercury, the FDA and EPA believe they will be able to avoid negative side effects.

Among the low mercury “good choices” are shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish, and cod. The seven types listed to avoid include, shark, swordfish, orange roughy, bigeye tuna, marlin, and king mackerel.

A typical adult serving of fish is 4 ounces. The recommended serving for children is one to two servings per week from various types of fish.

The agency also urges recreational fishers to check local advisories concerning mercury to determine what safe fish are fishable in those waters. If there are none listed, then they recommend eating one fish meal a week from local waters.

“Fish are an important source of protein and other nutrients for young children and women who are or may become pregnant, or are breastfeeding,” said FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods and Veterinary Medicine Stephen Ostroff, M.D. “This new, clear and concrete advice is an excellent tool for making safe and healthy choices when buying fish.”


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