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New Report Fuels Confusion About Women, Fish

A group called the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition is urging pregnant women and new mothers to eat more seafood. It's a message that women have heard before. But the coalition's recommendations conflict with official public health advice. It urges women to eat at least 12 ounces of seafood per week, which is stirring a lot of controversy

"I really think that's the wrong recommendation to be making," says pediatrician Frank Greer, chairman of the nutrition committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "We really should not be implying that women should be eating more than 12 ounces of seafood."

"No more than 12 ounces" is the government's advice.

Weighing Risks and Benefits

The National Academy of Sciences conducted an exhaustive review of the evidence surrounding safe consumption of fish. It weighed the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids against the possible risks from mercury contamination and other industrial pollution.

The Academy concluded that pregnant women should consume no more than 12 ounces of seafood per week. That's three to four servings. And that's the advice that most doctors stick with.

The top federal government agencies in charge of delivering public health messages expressed surprise over the announcement from Healthy Mothers, Healthy babies recommending increased fish consumption.

"We are members of the coalition, but we were not informed of this announcement in advance, and we do not support it," says Christina Pearson, spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services.

Pearson says neither the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nor the Food and Drug Administration knew about the announcement.

Funding from Fisheries

During the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies news conference, the moderator, Elizabeth Jordan, was asked how the organization is funded. She acknowledged that the group has received funding from the National Fisheries Institute — an industry group that promotes seafood.

"We actually received a $60,000 educational grant," Jordan said. "That money is put forth to create a microsite for the information presented here today."

Jordan said a Web site will be used to help inform consumers.

But the National Fisheries Institute funding constitutes a conflict of interest, according to Caroline Smith DeWaal, who directs nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"It's very troubling that the National Fisheries Institute is essentially paying for a public health message," Smith-DeWaal says.

The executive director of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies, Judy Meehan, says its message is not tainted by the industry funding.

"The industry has brought the panel together, paid for their travel to review the science, and they are allowing us to share our message that it's really important to eat fish," Meehan says.

That's something almost everyone agrees on — as long as it doesn't exceed 12 ounces per week.

With reporting by Joe Neel, Joanne Silberner and Erin Marie Williams.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.