Federal officials on Tuesday announced that they would recommendfor the first time that women who are pregnant or breast-feeding and young children eat a minimum of two servings of low-mercury seafood every week for their health.
The recommendations represent a significant shift for the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency, whose previous seafood advisory in 2004 set only an upper limit on the amount of fish that these groups should eat.
The proposed advisory, which will enter a public commenting period, recommends a weekly limit of 12 ounces — or about three servings — of low-mercury seafood like salmon, shrimp, cod, tilapia and light canned tuna for the women. But unlike the last advisory, it now encourages a minimum of two servings, or about eight ounces, which was prompted by an F.D.A. analysis that found that one in five pregnant women in the United States ate little or no fish at all.
Dr. Stephen Ostroff, the F.D.A.’s acting chief scientist, said the agency was concerned that pregnant and nursing women were missing out on the benefits of eating fish. He cited studies showing that children born to women who consume fish have higher I.Q.s and better cognitive development than children born to women who do not.
“A large percentage of women are simply not eating enough fish, and as a result they are not getting the developmental and health benefits that fish can provide,” he said. “Studies very consistently demonstrate that among women who consumed more fish during pregnancy — or at least the amounts we’re currently recommending — that there were improvements in children.”
Dr. Ostroff said the advisory did not pertain to supplements, like fish oil, that contain omega-3 fatty acids but lack a wide variety of other nutrients typically found in seafood. “We don’t believe women would accrue the same benefits in terms of health and development if they were to use supplements in place of fish,” he said.
The F.D.A. is also recommending that young children eat a weekly minimum of two fish servings, the size of which would vary depending on their age and weight.
Some environmental groups criticized the new recommendations. Michael Bender, the executive director of the Mercury Policy Project, one of two advocacy groups that sued the F.D.A. this year, demanding that it post warning labels about mercury content on packaged fish, said he was particularly concerned about tuna consumption. He said Americans get about a third of their methyl mercury exposure from tuna, and he argued that the F.D.A. should discourage pregnant and nursing women from eating it.
The latest advisory discourages pregnant and nursing women and young children from eating four high-mercury fish: shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico. The F.D.A. said orange roughy and marlin might be added to that list in the future.
As for tuna, the advisory lists the canned light variety as a low-mercury option. It recommends a limit of six ounces a week on albacore tuna because it has more mercury than canned light tuna.
Dr. Ostroff said tuna was not a problem as long as women did not eat it to the exclusion of low-mercury fish. “The health benefits that accrue from the consumption of fish far outweigh any risks,” he said.
Some doctors said the new advisory did not go far enough in encouraging greater fish consumption among pregnant women. By setting an upper limit on the amount of fish that should be consumed, the federal advisory has scared many women away from eating any fish at all, said Dr. Roger B. Newman, the director of the obstetrics and gynecology department at the Medical University of South Carolina and a member of the Perinatal Nutrition Working Group, which promotes seafood consumption among pregnant and breast-feeding women.
Dr. Newman said that many women in his clinical practice vowed to stop eating fish after the last advisory in 2004 because they were concerned or confused by the recommendations. “They didn’t know exactly what was wrong with fish,” he said, “but they had heard that it was bad.”
Dr. Newman said he told pregnant patients not to worry about restricting themselves to 12 ounces of fish weekly as long as they were eating low-mercury varieties. He said there were many epidemiological studies suggesting that children born to women who ate fish while pregnant have higher I.Q.s and better behavioral development.
One large study of thousands of mothers and their childrenpublished in The Lancet in 2007, for example, suggested that pregnant women needed to eat a minimum of about three servings of fish per week to get the benefits for child development.
“Seafood has multiple nutritional benefits to pregnant women, to developing fetuses and to young children,” Dr. Newman said. “I’m disappointed in the recommendations. But I do think they’re a step in the right direction.”