Mothers Again Urged to Eat Fish

The fish at Whole Foods on P Street NW are identified by their native countries, a store practice instituted before mandatory seafood labeling.
The fish at Whole Foods on P Street NW are identified by their native countries, a store practice instituted before mandatory seafood labeling. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Sally Squires
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 4, 2007

Pregnant and breast-feeding women should eat at least 12 ounces of fish and seafood per week to ensure their babies' optimal brain development, a coalition of top scientists from private groups and federal agencies plans to declare today in a public advisory that marks a major break with current U.S. health advice.

The scientists' conclusion is at odds with the standard government advice issued in 2001 that new mothers and mothers-to-be should eat no more than 12 ounces of seafood per week because of concerns about mercury contamination.

Shifting data and advice on how women's consumption of fish and seafood affects brain development of fetuses and infants, the most vulnerable groups, have produced one of the more vexing nutritional dilemmas of recent years.

In the short term, at least, today's statement, drafted by scientists affiliated with multiple medical organizations, is likely to deepen the dilemma for many women, especially since the Food and Drug Administration indicated that it will study the new information but is not prepared to change the advice it reiterated in 2004.

"There is a big debate about what is safe," said Brown University professor Patricia Nolan, a former state health officer of Rhode Island and one of the experts who drafted the new guidelines. "There are really complex questions. That is why we are doing this."

At the core of the problem is the tension between the brain-bolstering nutrients in seafood and concern over exposure to mercury, which builds up in the tissue of many marine species and is toxic to nerve tissue.

Practicing physicians such as New York University obstetrician Ashley Roman, herself a new mother, expect the questions about seafood and mercury to intensify.

"Every single day, I get questions from my patients about this, because it is such a confusing area," said Roman, who served on the panel that offered the new advice. "Personally, for me in my practice, it doesn't change what I have already been recommending, which is to have at least three servings of fish a week."

The first thing Roman said she tells her patients is that "fish intake in pregnancy has never been linked with mercury toxicity" in fetuses or newborns, while highlighting the benefits to mother and baby.

Fish and seafood are the major dietary sources of omega-3 fatty acids, especially a substance called docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). They are key nutrients for the brain and nervous system in developing fetuses, infants and young children.

The advisory set to be released today at a Washington news conference comes from the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition. The coalition is a nonprofit group with nearly 150 members, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the March of Dimes, as well as federal agencies including the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Concerns about mercury contamination prompted the FDA and the Environmental Protection Agency to issue consumer advisories in 2001 and again in 2004. Pregnant and breast-feeding women, those who wanted to become pregnant, and young children were told to eat no more than 12 ounces weekly of fish or seafood, a number based on theoretical calculations of the potential for contamination.

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