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FDA Retracts Previous Consumer Advice Over Mercury In Fish

December 13, 2008

The federal government has, for many years, recommended that pregnant women and young children limit their consumption of fish to avoid exposure to potentially harmful amounts of mercury.

But there’s now an ongoing debate between two top consumer protection agencies on whether that advice should be reconsidered to encourage all people to eat more fish, in order to promote healthy hearts.

A new report from the Food and Drug Administration argues that the health benefits of eating fish outweigh the potential ill effects of mercury.

But the Environmental Protection Agency has fired off a memo to the White House calling the 270-page FDA study “scientifically flawed and inadequate” and an “oversimplification” lacking analytical rigor.

Many environmental groups it’s nothing more than a sneak attempt to undercut important public health advice in the waning hours of a Bush administration that has treated science as a stepchild.

Richard Wiles, executive director of the Environmental Working Group, said the FDA was once a fearsome protector of the public health. “Now it’s nothing more than a patsy for polluters.”

The new movement is receiving plenty of enthusiasm from the food industry. One organization, the Center for Consumer Freedom, called it “long overdue and a huge public-health victory” that “just might be the best Christmas present health-conscious Americans could hope for.”

But on Friday, the interagency feud spilled into the open when the Environmental Working Group released copies of the dueling memos. The Washington Post first reported the dispute.

The FDA, however, has found itself in another controversy over the science of food safety. A panel of outside advisers recently challenged the agency on bisphenol A, or BPA, a chemical used to make plastic for food packaging and other consumers goods. The independent experts said that FDA’s conclusion that low doses of BPA are safe was scientifically flawed.

Congress is now involved in the battle over mercury.

“FDA should not change anything it cannot back up with the best science, because we know that mercury can cause brain and cardiovascular damage,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee. “FDA should not play politics with the health of our families.”

Officials at the FDA sought to slow the controversy and dispel concerns that the agency is about to toss out the government’s current mercury guidance.

Spokesman Michael Herndon said it would be a mistake to assume that this draft report represents the FDA’s official position because a final determination on these matters has not been reached.

“Following the discussion among government agencies, FDA intends to seek public comment. This will all be done in a very public and transparent manner, and the FDA will make no final determination until all the relevant comments and scientific analysis has been carefully considered.”

Mercury occurs naturally and is also released in the environment through pollution. Very high levels in the bloodstream can damage the nervous system of developing fetuses and young children, causing learning disabilities and other problems. Fish absorb mercury in the water and as they feed on plankton and other smaller fish. Some fish, like king mackerel and swordfish, accumulate higher levels of mercury.

People’s biggest exposure to mercury is through fish and shellfish, but fetuses and young children are the most susceptible to harm. About 8 percent of U.S. women of childbearing age have enough mercury in their blood to be at risk of having babies with subtle learning disabilities, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates.

Due to such concerns, the FDA and EPA have recommended that women of child-bearing age and young children not eat shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish, which contain high levels of mercury.

The agencies also advised that pregnant women eat no more than two meals a week of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury, a total of 12 ounces. And since “white” albacore tuna has more mercury than chunk light tuna, they recommended no more than six ounces a week.

The FDA’s draft report said the latest studies seem to indicate that the risks may not be as dire as previously thought. The agency also sought to weigh the risk of mercury against the benefits of eating more fish.

The report said current research suggests “a beneficial impact on fetal neurodevelopment from the mother’s consumption of fish, even though they contain methylmercury.”

“The net effect is not necessarily adverse, and could in fact be beneficial,” it added.

The EPA said, however, that the FDA report based its conclusions on models that use very limited inputs from studies that have significant problems for risk analysis.

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