Benefits vs. risks of fish consumption

In This Section

January 2012

The benefits of fish consumption outweigh the risks, according to a joint expert consultation released in October 2011 by two United Nations agencies.

Environmental groups, including the Mercury Policy Project (MPP), an advocacy group based in Montpelier, Vermont, USA, disputed that analysis.

“Surprisingly, this expert group failed to address exposure concerns about fish with higher [methyl]mercury levels, which have led to consumption advisories in the United States and around the world,” said Michael Bender, director of the MPP, in a statement.

The report resulted from work requested by the Codex Alimentarius Commission and was conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) of the United Nations. The expert consultation found that the consumption of fish—especially fatty, cold-water fish—lowers the risk of mortality from coronary heart disease (CHD) among the general adult population. Further, the report notes an absence of probable or convincing evidence of CHD risk linked to methylmercury consumption, and says that potential cancer risks associated with dioxins are well below established CHD benefits from eating fish.

“When considering benefits of long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) vs. risks of methylmercury among women of childbearing age, maternal fish consumption lowers the risk of suboptimal neurodevelopment in their offspring compared to women not eating fish in most circumstances evaluated,” the report suggests.

The report also discusses the intake of dioxin-like polychlorinated biphenyl (DLC) intake from fish and other dietary sources. It finds that neurodevelopmental risk is negligible at levels of maternal DLC intake that do not exceed the provisional tolerable monthly intake (PTMI) of 70 picograms/kilogram of bodyweight/month established by JECFA (the Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives). Neurodevelopmental risk may no longer be negligible at levels of maternal DLC intake from fish and other dietary sources that exceed the PTMI.

The report also found that among infants, young children, and adolescents, “the available data are currently insufficient to derive a quantitative framework of health risks and benefits of eating fish. However, healthy dietary patterns that include fish and are established early in life influence dietary habits and health during adult life.”

To minimize risks, the report recommended steps that governments should take to “better assess and manage the risks and benefits of fish consumption and more effectively educate and communicate with their populations.” The FAO/WHO report is available online at (pdf).