In a recent survey conducted by the University of Maryland’s Center for Food Nutrition and Agriculture Policy, consumers listed tuna, salmon and shrimp as the fish with the highest levels of mercury. But when the question was reversed — which fish had the lowest levels of mercury? — the responses were identical: tuna, salmon and shrimp.

“On one hand, we want pregnant women to eat fish, as there are plenty of benefits to the fetus in terms of cognitive development and other factors,” said university researcher Maureen Storey, “But on the other hand, there is confusion about the risks, so there are a lot of conflicting messages that have been misunderstood.”

For the record, the fish containing highest levels of mercury are large predatory fish, the most popularly eaten being shark, swordfish, and tilefish.

Storey was among various experts describing the escalating communication dilemma surrounding seafood that is posing a risk of its own—turning people away from one of the most nutritious foods.

“There may be some risk in consumption of fish, but there’s a bigger risk in not consuming fish at all,” Storey said.

That scenario is playing out in Indiana, where seafood intake is already lower than on the East and West Coasts, according to Charles Santerre, professor at Purdue University.

“We’re starting to realize in Indiana that the risk of not getting enough fish—and their benefits such as omega-3 fatty acids—is greater than any risks that fish may pose,” he said. “Many physicians are not well versed in the true risks. They’re telling their pregnant patients to simply not eat fish and that’s just very bad advice.”

Despite recommendations from the American Heart Association that fish should be consumed at least two times per week, only 17 percent of those surveyed reported eating fish that often. Only 24 percent said they ate fish a couple of times a month.

By comparison, in the United States annual per capita consumption of poultry is 86 pounds, beef is 66 pounds, and fish consumption is a mere 16 pounds, reported Barbara Blackistone, of the National Fisheries Institute.

“Fish is really the poster child of food safety, but we simply don’t eat that much compared to other meats, and confusion about safety plays a big role in that,” Blackistone said.

When the media reports Environmental Protection Agency reference doses for mercury contamination, headlines tend to paint a worst-case scenario without telling the whole story, Blackistone added.

“Based on EPA reference dose figures, thousands of babies appear to be at risk from mercury contamination, and that’s what the media looks at, but they forget that the reference dose has a 10-fold safety factor.” Otherwise stated, EPA levels are purposefully set 10 times lower to help ensure people attain nowhere near harmful exposure.

Maryland’s CFNAP Web site,, publishes a Web site to help people sort through seafood safety facts.

“The safety information coming from the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the EPA can be so complex…but this helps to sort it all out,” Storey said.

Source: Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions