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Something’s Fishy on Federal Dietary Committee

By Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., and Patrick Sullivan

Holy mackerel! When the government convenes a panel of experts, it’s wise to expect the unexpected. But even hardened observers are stunned by an irresponsible new recommendation emerging from a federal committee advising Americans on healthy food choices.

For months now, these nutrition experts have gathered periodically in Washington, D.C., to ponder refinements to the most important government document you’ve never heard of: The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which helps shape the influential Food Guide Pyramid.

At its last meeting, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee revealed that it is coming to a startling conclusion: Americans don’t consume enough mercury.

That’s not how committee members phrased it, of course. But mercury consumption will undoubtedly increase if the government advises Americans to eat more fish, as the committee now proposes.

If the idea is implemented, the new dietary guidelines would recommend consuming eight to nine ounces of fish a week—an amount that could dramatically increase the risk of birth defects and neurological disease.

The short-sightedness of this proposal is hard to overstate. From the Food and Drug Administration to the European Union’s Food Safety Authority, government agencies around the world are issuing increasingly urgent warnings that mercury-contaminated fish pose a serious threat to public health.

Like lead, mercury is a potent neurotoxin that accumulates in the body and can wreak havoc on the brain and nervous system. Women and children are especially vulnerable. Indeed, one in six women of childbearing age already has enough mercury in her blood to threaten the health of a developing fetus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For unborn and developing children, mercury exposure can lead to a host of neurological and developmental problems, from learning disabilities to physical malformations and mental retardation.

Proponents defend fish consumption as a boon to cardiovascular health. That’s because some species contain Omega-3 fatty acids, which may help guard against heart disease.

But that argument doesn’t hold water. For one thing, fish are hardly the only source of Omega-3. Walnuts and flax seeds, for example, provide a similar benefit.

And while Americans currently eat an average of one serving of fish a week, fish consumption is already our primary source of mercury exposure. Some of the most polluted species—like albacore tuna—are also the most popular with consumers.

As a result, Environmental Protection Agency scientists recently reported that 630,000 babies born a year may have been exposed as fetuses to unsafe levels of mercury.

The last thing the government should do is advise people to put more fish on their plates.

In fact, even eating small amounts of some fish may be unsafe. In March, the FDA and the EPA teamed up to issue a national health advisory warning that children and women of childbearing age should limit mercury intake by eating no more than six ounces of albacore tuna a week.

But that warning was criticized as dangerously lax by a key scientific advisor to the two agencies. Vas Aposhian, a toxicologist and professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of Arizona, says that mercury levels in albacore tuna are so high the fish should be avoided completely.

Dr. Aposhian, who resigned his advisory position in protest, also says the food industry exerted influence to water down the mercury warning. It’s notable that the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee includes many members with financial ties to food companies.

The mechanisms of mercury toxicity are still being investigated, and scientists are trying to determine the risks posed by even low levels of exposure.

But one thing is clear. The government is supposed to help consumers choose nutritious diets—not put the health of women and children at risk by encouraging them to eat polluted foods.

Amy Joy Lanou, Ph.D., is nutrition director of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Patrick Sullivan is a PCRM staff writer.


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