FDA Needs Better Guidelines on Toxicity in Fish

When browsing your local seafood counter, there’s a good chance you don’t consider how toxic the tuna or swordfish may be.

Ahi tuna tends to have high levels of mercury.
Ahi tuna tends to have high levels of mercury. (Photo courtesy of Larry Hoffman)

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When browsing your local seafood counter, there’s a good chance you don’t consider how toxic the tuna or swordfish may be. 

For most people, mercury exposure from eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. Yet, you may be unknowingly exposing your family to harmful mercury levels, depending on the type of fish you feed them, the serving size and how often your family consumes seafood.

Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury, a potent neurotoxin that is especially harmful to fetuses, infants, and children. Some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury which can damage an unborn baby or young child’s developing central nervous system.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Environmental Protection Agency have advised parents, pregnant women and women of childbearing age on which fish are not safe to eat through an online fish advisory. However, their efforts have been largely ineffective at reaching these vulnerable groups and the public at large because most people have no idea the advisory exists.

Approximately 200,000 children in the U.S. between the ages of two and five have mercury levels almost 50 percent higher than the base mercury level recommended by the EPA. These figures are even higher in coastal regions, and higher among groups such as African Americans and Asians, the affluent and those who rely on subsistence or recreational fishing. Sadly, most of these individuals do not know of the risks associated with exposing themselves and their families to seafood contaminated with this potent yet avoidable neurotoxin.

Moreover, most individuals in the U.S. do not know they can easily minimize the risks and maximize the benefits of fish consumption for their families and unborn children. While some consumers are in the dark about the mercury-in-seafood issue, some who are aware of the risks avoid seafood unnecessarily, depriving themselves of health benefits such as omega-3 fatty acids.   

To remedy the information gap and help seafood consumers make healthier choices, Earthjustice, on behalf of consumer protection and environmental advocates Center for Science in the Public Interest and Mercury Policy Project, petitioned the FDA to initiate rulemaking to better communicate and clarify the agency’s current recommendations for seafood consumption directed towards women of childbearing age and parents of children. (Read the full petition.)

Specifically, Earthjustice asked the FDA to:

  • Require informational labeling on packaged seafood that reflects the recommendations in the agencies’ online advisory
  • Require grocery stores to post the seafood consumption recommendations at the point of sale of unpackaged, fresh seafood, in a user-friendly chart
  • Provide informational mercury level and consumption limit labeling on packaging and/or at the point of sale for seafood species with moderate and high mercury content that are not otherwise listed in the online advisory

By requiring package labeling and point-of-sale charts, the FDA would be equipping parents with the information they need to make healthier seafood choices for their families, and thereby reduce unnecessary mercury exposure. Parents would be able to maximize their family’s healthy intake of seafood by selecting fish and shellfish that are high in omega-3s and low in mercury.

Unhealthy levels of mercury are easily preventable so long as the FDA ensures that its advice gets to the public. Moving forward, we will continue to push the FDA to do the right thing and protect our families from dangerous toxins.

Terrence was an intern with the press team in the San Francisco, CA, headquarters during the summer of 2014. He was born and raised in rural Florida, and previously worked with the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission to gather data on threatened wildlife and ecosystems.