A scientific study that questions whether eating fish can help prevent heart disease could lead some consumers to eat less of it, said industry observers a week after the report was issued.
But whether it has any significant effect on how much fish is sold in supermarkets, the study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, is sure to add to public confusion about the health-related arguments for increased seafood consumption.
Some nutritionists who specialize in seafood said the six-year study by the Harvard School of Public Health is flawed, or at the very least "just another perspective" on the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.
The Harvard researchers themselves said they were "somewhat surprised" at their results, since previous studies indicated that consumption of the omega-3 fatty acids in seafood cut risk of heart disease by about one-third.
An executive at New England's largest fish wholesaler said he hopes seafood consumption won't drop as a result of the study's publicity, but he fears it will.
"Anything negative that comes out in the media has an effect on consumption," said Bill Doyle, general manager of Foley Fish Co., New Bedford, Mass.
"There might be a small impact on consumption, if some people ate seafood only because they felt they had to," said Ken Gall, seafood specialist with New York Sea Grant at State University of New York -- Stony Brook, Stony Brook, N.Y. "If they don't really like it, they might stop."
One retailer, contacted after stories about the study broke in the news media nationally, said he saw no sales fallout.
"At this point, we have seen no negative impact on seafood sales," said Tim Hebert, seafood merchandiser for Harris Teeter supermarkets, Charlotte, N.C. "I don't feel we will."
Sea Grant's Gall also told SN he "seriously doubts" seafood consumption will drop to any significant degree because of this study.
The study asked 45,000 men, all health care professionals and mostly dentists, to fill out dietary questionnaires in 1986. The study then followed their rates of fatal heart attacks, coronary-bypass surgery and other heart disease signs for six years. Researchers also took tissue samples from 127 of the men to analyze for fish oil content, as a check on the accuracy of dietary information they provided.
Results showed consuming fin fish and shellfish up to six times a week did not lower the risk of heart attack in healthy men between 40 and 75 years old. But the study indicated these men were still better off eating fish one or two times a week, rather than eating none.
"It doesn't change our basic advice," said Gall. "We will still recommend that people eat seafood at least once or twice a week, not just for the omega-3's, but for the overall effect on the diet that substituting a low-fat food for a high-fat food such as red meat has."
The National Fisheries Institute, a trade organization with members from all sectors of the seafood industry, said the study raises more questions than answers.
"Some researchers we've worked with through the years say the study is flawed," said Clare Vanderbeek, NFI's vice president of communication. "Others say it shouldn't affect past studies, which comprise the major body of research on the issue."
"I tend to discount medical reports, because one report says one thing and the next week another one comes out and contradicts it," said fish wholesaler Doyle. "When I heard about the study on the radio, it was just seconds after I heard that the Georges Bank [fishery] closure had been extended indefinitely, so I felt like I'd been kicked in the teeth.
"Only part of the Georges Bank is closed and will be closed, not all the of Georges Bank," he added, which indicates how news reports can scare people without being accurate, said Doyle.
As for people turning away from seafood because it might not be the silver bullet for heart disease, Gall said, "Consumers should not be looking at any kind of food as medicine, as treatment for a condition. If this study says anything, it's that more of a good thing is not necessarily the answer for every individual."
Organizations such as the American Heart Association will continue to recommend that Americans eat fish instead of meat products that are heavy with saturated fat and cholesterol, a spokesman said.