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US plans to warn pregnant women to limit tuna

WASHINGTON -- 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 broader advisory concerning the dangers of eating fish and shellfish with elevated levels of harmful mercury.

A draft advisory by the Food and Drug Administration and 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.

The government is also advising consumers to mix up 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, or tilefish because they contain unusually high levels of mercury, but until now the agency hasn't directly addressed concerns about tuna.

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 that, "You can safely include tuna as part of your weekly fish consumption."

However, David Acheson, 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 US Tuna Foundation, said the industry agrees that there was a need to expand the government advisory to include tuna, but that manufacturers fear that environmental and consumer groups will exploit fears to unnecesssrily harm the industry.

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.

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