Seafood? Eat it, urges the FDA

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The Obama administration proposed new federal guidance Tuesday for seafood consumption, formally advising pregnant women, young mothers and small children to eat more fish.

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The draft guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental protection Agency represent a shift from 2004 guidance that left some women under the impression they should stay away from all seafood while pregnant or breastfeeding.

“For years many women have limited or avoided eating fish during pregnancy or feeding fish to their young children,” said Stephen Ostroff, the FDA’s acting chief scientist. “But emerging science now tells us that limiting or avoiding fish during pregnancy and early childhood can mean missing out on important nutrients that can have a positive impact on growth and development as well as on general health.”

Recent science shows that seafood rich in Omega-3 fatty acids improves brain and eye development in babies. Under the new guidelines, pregnant and breastfeeding women should eat two to three servings (or between eight and 12 ounces) of seafood, including shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish and cod.

The new advice follows years of pleas from a bipartisan group of federal lawmakers who complained about delays related to the federal review process.

In the meantime, they said, millions of babies were born under outdated guidance.

“For many pregnant women, consistent federal advice may be the only source of nutrition recommendations they receive,” a bipartisan group of senators wrote last August in a letter to President Obama while urging swift action on the issue.

The new guidance follows an FDA analysis data related to the seafood consumption of 1,000 pregnant women in the United States. The study found that 21 percent ate no fish at all, and those who did ate far less than the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends.

The previous federal guidance did not expressly advise pregnant women or young mothers against eating seafood altogether. The agencies instead recommended maximum amounts of fish that they should eat, but no minimum amount.

The new guidelines still caution pregnant and breastfeeding women against eating fish associated with high mercury levels, including tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish and king mackerel.  Further, the advice suggests limiting consumption of white (albacore) tuna to 6 ounces a week.

Issuance of the draft guidelines starts the clock on a 30-day public comment period, after which the guidance is expected to be finalized.