Before the USDA Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee
January 29, 2009
I am Dr. Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Research Center for Women & Families. I have no conflicts of interest.
Our Center is dedicated to improving the health and safety of adults and children, and we do that by scrutinizing medical and scientific research to determine what is known and not known about specific health and safety issues.
In addition, I am a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics. I was trained in epidemiology at Yale Medical School; was on the faculty at Yale and Vassar; and directed a multi-site research project at Harvard. I have worked on health policy issues in Congress, the White House, and for nonprofit organizations for 25 years.
I want to thank this Advisory Committee for its excellent work. There are many important issues for you to consider, but I am going to focus on two less-frequently discussed food safety issues that deserve your careful attention.
Methylmercury in Fish. In 2005, this Advisory Committee’s Dietary Guidelines Report included information about the risks of methylmercury in fish consumed by pregnant and nursing women and young children. This was consistent with a 2004 joint advisory from FDA and EPA. However, the FDA recently issued a draft report that focuses on the benefits of fish and downplays the risks of methylmercury. They implicitly justify this change by focusing on average levels of mercury, rather than the range of mercury levels in specific species of fish. Mercury is a neurotoxin, so children can be seriously harmed if pregnant or nursing moms consume canned tuna or other fish with dangerously high mercury levels. This draft report has been strongly criticized and should not influence this Advisory Committee.
The problem is that tuna is fish that is most often consumed in the U.S., and albacore canned tuna and all fresh and frozen tuna are quite high in methylmercury – sometimes extremely high. Although mercury levels are higher in swordfish, shark, tilefish, and king mackerel, those fish are not on the weekly menu for most families. In 2005, your report quoted the FDA and EPA advisory limiting pregnant and nursing women and young children to no more than 12 oz of fish each week. I urge you to emphasize that these vulnerable groups can safely eat more than 12 oz. of fish and seafood if they only eat fish that are very low on mercury, such as tilapia, haddock, and cod. Unfortunately, these vulnerable populations can be harmed if they eat even 6 oz. of albacore tuna every week.
Food containers. Bisphenol A (BPA) is used in the lining of canned foods and beverages, and in the lining of metal tops for bottled food and beverages, such as juices and sauces. Last September, the National Toxicology Program final report stated that “Bisphenol A can migrate into food from food and beverage containers with internal epoxy resin coatings…”1 and that “Bisphenol A in food and beverages accounts for the majority of daily human exposure.”
In summary: this estrongenic chemical is in the food and beverages we consume. Any chemical that affects hormones can affect puberty and increase the risk of certain cancers. There is also evidence that BPA can affect cognitive functioning and mood. BPA in packaged food and beverages is therefore an important safety issue for this Advisory Committee.
The National Toxicology Program report concludes that there is reason for “some concern” about the effects of BPA on “brain, behavior, and prostate gland” at current levels of exposure. “Some concern” doesn’t sound serious, but for the National Toxicology Program, it means a substantial level of concern. The report also concluded that there was “negligible concern” about the effects on early puberty – which means that there is possible reason for concern, but not much evidence. The report expressed less concern about BPA’s effects on fetal or neonatal mortality, birth defects, or birth weight.
However, after the NTP report was completed in September, more research was published indicating even more evidence that BPA may be dangerous at current levels. Based on their analysis of existing studies last fall, the FDA Science Board concluded that more research was needed to determine if the current levels of BPA are safe in infant formula containers and other food container exposures for young children. The FDA’s Science Board criticized last year’s FDA report on BPA, saying that the FDA had not considered all the appropriate scientific evidence. The Science Board also pointed out the need to determine if BPA levels are safe for pregnant women and people undergoing chemotherapy. Meanwhile, research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in September, based on data from the highly respected NHANES survey, indicates that even when obesity is statistically controlled, adults with more BPA in their bodies are at higher risk of diabetes and heart disease.2
A final point: there is new research suggesting that corn syrup may have high levels of mercury. We don’t know enough to draw conclusions about this new research, but the implications are very important for the public health so we urge you to keep appraised of any new findings regarding corn syrup as you do your work.
1. National Toxicology Program, NTP-CERHR Monograph on the Potential Human Reproductive and Developmental Effects of Bisphenol A, http://cerhr.niehs.nih.gov/chemicals/bisphenol/bisphenol.pdf
2. Lang IA, Galloway TS, Scarlett A et al, Association of Urinary Bispehnol A Concentration With Medical Disorders and Laboratory Abnormalities in Adults, JAMA, September 17, 2008, 300 (11), 1303-1310.