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Risk Communication about Methylmercury in Seafood

FDA has announced that its Risk Communication Advisory Committee (RCAC) will be holding a public meeting on November 3-4, 2014, at its White Oak Campus in Silver Spring, MD.  The RCAC meeting will focus on messages about the importance of eating adequate amounts of fish and shellfish, while avoiding certain varieties with higher amounts of methylmercury.  Such messages are especially important for women who are pregnant or nursing, and for anyone who prepares food for young children.  Methylmercury is a neurotoxin that can be harmful to the brain and nervous system if a person is exposed to too much of it.

Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet.  Fish and shellfish contain high-quality protein and other essential nutrients; are low in saturated fat; and contain omega-3 fatty acids.  A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can contribute to heart health and children’s proper growth and development. This being the case, women and young children (in particular) should include fish and shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits.

However, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of methylmercury.  For most people, the risk from methylmercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. However, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of methylmercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child’s developing nervous system.  The risks from methylmercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of methylmercury in these fish and shellfish.

In June 2014, FDA and EPA jointly issued a draft update to their 2004 advice regarding fish and shellfish consumption.  The draft advice essentially encourages pregnant women, those who may become pregnant, breastfeeding mothers, and young children to eat more fish and shellfish, and to select a variety from choices that are lower in methylmercury.  This updated draft advice is consistent with recommendations made in the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and is based on a risk assessment that was peer reviewed.

The updated draft advice recommends that pregnant women eat at least 8 ounces (oz) and up to 12 oz (2-3 servings) per week of a variety of fish that are lower in methylmercury to support fetal growth and development.  It cautions pregnant or breastfeeding women to avoid four types of fish that are associated with high methylmercury levels, i.e., tilefish from the Gulf of Mexico, shark, swordfish, and king mackerel.  In addition, it recommends limiting consumption of white (albacore) tuna to 6 oz per week.  Choices lower in methylmercury include some of the most commonly eaten fish, including shrimp, pollock, salmon, canned light tuna, tilapia, catfish, and cod.

The RCAC public meeting is part of FDA/EPA’s efforts to finalize the updated draft advice.  Before issuing final advice, the agencies intend to consider public comments and the advice of FDA’s RCAC, and to conduct a series of focus groups.  Comments on the updated draft advice may be submitted to the FDA docket or by participating in the public meeting.

The RCAC public meeting’s topic, of course, reasonably is relevant to the prospective labeling and advertising interests of fish and shellfish purveyors.

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