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FDA says ‘No’ to mercury labeling of seafood

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(NaturalHealth365) Coming to a seafood aisle near you: concise and clear signage and labels, detailing the exact amount of mercury that may reside in those fresh salmon fillets sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s not likely to become a reality anytime soon.

Under pressure from a lawsuit filed by consumer advocacy groups, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has promised to review and update its guidelines concerning appropriate levels of mercury in seafood for pregnant women and children. However, don’t expect to see labels on seafood – the FDA has no plans to require them.

In fact, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg took pains to make this clear, saying that the FDA’s new updates are an “advisory,” and “not an effort to mandate labeling.”

Two groups, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the Mercury Policy Project, joined forces to file the lawsuit. Since 2000, the CSPI has been asking the FDA for stricter regulations concerning mercury in fish and shellfish; in 2011, it petitioned for labeling. Consumer Reports has also joined the fray, requesting that canned tuna be labeled.

Current guidelines are confusing, burdensome and insufficiently publicized

The FDA already advises that pregnant women and young children avoid certain types of fish, and to consume others only within limits.

But the consumer groups say that this information has not effectively reached the general public, and their criticism seems to have merit. According to an article in Businessweek, a surprising 38 percent of Americans are completely unaware of the risks of seafood consumption.

The answer is simple: Clear labeling for a clear choice

In addition to the problem of some consumers being insufficiently educated about mercury in seafood, representatives from CSPI say that it’s unreasonable to expect those who are aware of the problem to memorize two different lists of low- and high- mercury fish. The group wants the FDA to require supermarket signs and package labels that clearly state the amounts of mercury in fish and other seafood, along with information on safe levels.

What, exactly, does the FDA say about all of this?

The FDA says that pregnant women and young children should completely avoid eating shark, king mackerel, swordfish and tilefish. However, as coldwater fish are a good source of lean protein and omega-3 fatty acids, pregnant women and children are currently advised to eat an average of two 6-ounce servings a week of lower-mercury fish such as salmon, catfish, shrimp, light canned tuna and pollock. Albacore – or “white” – tuna, as well as fresh or frozen tuna, should be limited to a single 6-ounce serving per week.

The agency also recommends checking local advisories before eating locally-caught fish. For me, it’s simple, ‘clear labeling’ is the responsibility of the food producer – especially as it pertains to the health of their customers.

How does mercury get into fish and shellfish?

Mercury, released into the atmosphere from industrial pollution, eventually settles into waterways and oceans. When mercury is exposed to water, it is transformed into methyl mercury, a more toxic form of the metal, and accumulates in the bodies of fish.

The larger and more long-lived the fish, the more methyl mercury it can contain – the reason that smaller, shorter-lived fish, such as sardines, have much less mercury than sharks and swordfishes. Yet, I know what some people may be thinking.

Is mercury really a health risk?

Methyl mercury, a neurotoxin, has been linked to impaired cognitive function, lowered IQ, and impaired nervous system functioning.

Although nearly all fish and shellfish now contain traces of methyl mercury, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claims this poses no health risk for most people.

But, the agency says that mercury could pose a threat to unborn babies, as well as to the developing brains of young children. Now I know many believe that the digestive system is designed to protect us from consumed toxins – but why expose ourselves, when we can avoid it?

How many people are affected?

The CSPI lawsuit states that several thousand children a year are born with elevated mercury levels caused by their mothers’ consumption of contaminated seafood. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), roughly one in 40 women of childbearing age have more than 5.8 micrograms of mercury per liter of blood – above the level considered safe for a developing fetus.

Although the FDA hasn’t yet released its updated advisories, natural health experts and consumer groups alike are disappointed that labels won’t be forthcoming. With toxic methyl mercury contaminating the fish and shellfish from our rivers, lakes and oceans, knowing the levels we are ingesting seems a small thing to ask.

Obviously, we can’t afford to wait for government health agencies to protect us. As I always say, ‘educate yourself and make an informed decision’.

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