The UK Food Standards Agency today [Thursday] issued new advice on eating oily fish and, for the first time, recommended maximum levels at which the health benefits of preventing heart disease clearly outweigh the possible risks from dioxins.

The Agency recommended that men and boys, and women past child bearing age, can eat up to four portions of oily fish a week. Women of child bearing age, including pregnant and breastfeeding women, and girls, can eat up to two portions of oily fish a week, it said.

Long-standing public health advice continues to be that people should eat at least two portions of fish a week, and that one should be oily. There is good evidence that eating oily fish reduces the risk of death from heart disease, which killed 117,500 people in 2002. On average, people in the UK eat a third of a portion of oily fish a week. Seven out of ten eat none at all, the Agency said.

Because some oily fish contain chemicals such as dioxins and PCBs, which accumulate over time in the body and could have adverse health effects if consumed over long periods at high levels, the FSA asked its expert advisers in June 2003 to examine the evidence on the risks and benefits of eating oily fish. The levels of dioxins in oily fish vary and some types, such as herring, tend to have higher levels than others, such as trout. The experts based their recommendations on people eating different types of oily fish.

Dioxins and PCBs are environmental pollutants and people accumulate them through eating foods containing fat such as milk, meat, fish and eggs. Exposure to dioxins in foods has fallen by around 70% over the last ten years and continues to decline following the strict environmental controls that came into effect in 1992, the Agency said.