Thursday, October 4, 2007

Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies, Fishy Advocacy

This morning Science Daily, a website "for the latest research news” wrote “A Maternal Nutrition Group comprised of top professors of obstetrics and doctors of nutrition from across the country, in partnership with the National Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies Coalition (HMHB), unveiled recommendations for seafood consumption during pregnancy.” If you went to the Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies website you found “Brainy Babies, Healthy Kids,” warning pregnant women about the dangers of eating too little fish during pregnancy.

This was presented as fact, not opinion.

The recommendations were a response to the Institute of Medicine’s October 2006 report “Seafood Choices: Balancing Benefits and Risks.” The IOM noted that fish contain beneficial ingredients – high quality protein and omega-3 fatty acids. But fish can also contain toxins, especially mercury. The IOM concluded that women who are or may become pregnant or who are breast feeding “can safely consume 12 ounces per week.”

The Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies press release turned the IOM guideline on its head and “recommended that women who want to become pregnant, are pregnant or are breastfeeding should eat a minimum of 12 ounces per week of fish like salmon, tuna, sardines and mackerel, and can do so safely.”

Luckily, National Public Radio was on its toes, and determined that Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies had received $60,000 from the National Fisheries Institute to promote the “new guidelines.” I heard the story on the evening news.

I don’t claim to know the ultimate truth about fish intake during pregnancy, but I do know about the ethics of advocacy. The National Fisheries Institute is entitled to disagree with the Institute of Medicine, but it should speak for itself directly and not hide behind the skirts of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies. And Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies has – at best – made a terrible misjudgment about conflict of interest, and at worst has sold whatever trust it had earned for $60,000.

Consumer empowerment and consumer advocacy have been positive forces for the U.S. health system. But this story, which emerged in less than 12 hours, shows how an unhealthy alliance between industry and "consumers" can smell like rotten fish.

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