The US Food & Drug Administration is reconsidering its advice about whether or not tuna fish is safe for pregnant women after its earlier recommendation that a few servings of most fish are safe was criticised for bowing to pressure from the seafish industry.
The food safety lobby is concerned that the high levels of mercury found in some tuna could have an adverse effect on the brains of unborn babies if pregnant women continue to eat the fish - and there are concerns that other species ignored by the FDA could pose an even greater risk.
The FDA has said that it made its recommendations on clear scientific data, but has nonetheless bowed to calls for a rethink and asked an independent group of scientists to reassess the evidence.
"It was our genuine belief that if women consciously followed this advice ... these women would be protecting their unborn children," FDA food safety chief Joseph Levitt said yesterday as the advisers opened a three-day inquiry. "It is an emotionally charged issue," Levitt continued. "We are truly open and want your best advice, whether you agree with us or not."
The decision of the independent panel is expected tomorrow.
Concerns about mercury levels in fish have prompted food safety agencies in several countries to issue guidelines, but the FDA's decision not to recommend that tuna be avoided by pregnant women has prompted much debate. It advised against the consumption of shark, swordfish, king mackerel and golden snappers, all of which are known to contain high levels of mercury, but tuna, which contains just slightly less mercury than swordfish, was given the all clear.
Food safety groups have issued their own recommendations that pregnant women avoid eating tuna fish, and have added sea bass and marlin to the list of fish which should be avoided.
Since the FDA has not banned the sale of any of the fish, and does not even require warning labels, the situation has become very confusing for consumers, prompting the decision to carry out the independent review and once and for all draw up comprehensive and useful guidelines about mercury and fish.