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Federal warning on tuna mercury danger { December 11 2003 }

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Federal Warning On Tuna Planned
Mercury a Danger To Fetuses, Children

By Eric Pianin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2003; Page A01

The federal government plans to warn pregnant women, nursing mothers and even those thinking of getting pregnant to limit their consumption of tuna as part of a broad advisory concerning the dangers of eating fish and shellfish with elevated levels of harmful mercury.

A draft advisory from the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency cautions women of childbearing age as well as young children to limit their intake of tuna and other fish and shellfish to 12 ounces a week, the equivalent of two to three modest meals. Among seafood, tuna ranks second only to shrimp in popularity in the United States.

The government is also advising consumers to mix the types of fish they eat and not to eat any one kind of fish or shellfish more than once a week. The FDA had previously warned pregnant women against eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish because they contain unusually high levels of mercury, but until now the agency has not directly addressed concerns about tuna or issued warnings for so large a segment of the population.

The advisory notes that mercury levels in tuna vary, and that tuna steaks and canned albacore tuna generally contain higher levels of mercury than canned light tuna. The document advises pregnant and nursing women: "You can safely include tuna as part of your weekly fish consumption."

But David Acheson, the FDA's medical officer in charge of the issue, said in an interview that it is implicit in the draft document that women at risk should eat no more than four to six ounces of tuna once a week.

David Burney, executive director of the San Diego-based U.S. Tuna Foundation, said that the industry agrees there is a need to expand the government advisory to include tuna, but that manufacturers fear that environmental and consumer groups will exploit fears to unnecessarily harm the industry.

"Every time there's a hearing or a meeting, you get all these incredible accusations flying everywhere, where you have people saying they know people who ate fish who glow in the dark," Burney said. "That's the kind of thing you don't like to see, and you wonder whether people are taking this to heart."

StarKist, Bumble Bee and Chicken of the Sea, the three principal U.S. tuna manufacturers, sold about 2.3 billion six-ounce cans of tuna last year. But retail sales have dropped by about 10 percent in the United States in the past decade, to about $1.1 billion a year, in part because of public concern about the effects of mercury, according to industry figures and media reports. Last year, shrimp for the first time overtook tuna in overall sales.

Women between 18 and 54 typically make 85 percent of tuna purchases at supermarkets, according to industry figures. More than 80 percent of all tuna sold is used at lunch in various salads.

The proposed new guidelines began circulating yesterday at a meeting in Washington of the FDA's Food Advisory Committee and likely will be formally promulgated early next year, according to FDA officials. The advisory is the government's response to mounting public concern about the dangers of mercury pollution in tuna and other popular fish and shellfish.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that, like lead, can damage the brains and nervous systems of fetuses and young children. Exposure to it from eating contaminated fish can lead to a number of neurological problems, including learning and attention disabilities and mental retardation.

Consumer and environmental groups have long complained that the FDA has been slow to respond to the problem of mercury in tuna. Last year, the advisory committee recommended that the FDA warn pregnant women and young children to limit tuna in their diet and offer educational material about which fish are high or low in mercury.

Goulda Downer, a Washington nutritionist and a member of the FDA advisory committee, said many of her patients are greatly confused about the risks of eating tuna and other fish caught in the ocean or in inland waters.

"People are just so scared," she said. The EPA and the FDA last fall launched a joint effort to draft a new fish-consumption advisory, based on the most recent research on mercury contamination of fish. Officials also conducted focus groups in major cities throughout the country in an effort to come up with the clearest and most helpful wording for the advisory.

Sanford Miller, chairman of the advisory panel, said: "The mere fact that the FDA and the EPA have seriously come together to try to resolve the issue is a good sign in itself."

Miller, a senior fellow at Virginia Tech's Center for Food and Nutrition Policy, said it is "not an easy thing" for the government to caution women about the potential dangers of mercury-laden fish without totally discouraging them from eating a nutritious food.

But some environmentalists charged that the draft advisory is still far too weak and fails to adequately warn women of the high risks of eating even small amounts of tuna and other fish during their pregnancies.

"In fact, FDA encourages women to continue to eat types of seafood high in mercury and that would put a woman's baby at risk for neurological damage," said Jane Houlihan, vice president for research at the Environmental Working Group.

Recent FDA testing indicated that canned albacore, known as white tuna, contains almost three times as much mercury as canned light tuna.

This means that a single six-ounce can of albacore a week could put many women, depending on their size, over the government's safe mercury limit, according to Houlihan's group.

2003 The Washington Post Company

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