Natural Foods Merchandiser

'Poisson' or poison?

The very consumers who are eating fish for health are putting themselves in grave danger. A scorching investigation published by the Chicago Tribune last week revealed toxic levels of mercury in seafood for sale in every store tested in the Chicago area. Fortunately, some of America's environmental and sustainability-focused groups are rallying to provide answers for retailers, restaurants and consumers.

According to the Tribune article, "Popular seafood was so tainted that federal regulators could confiscate the fish for violating food safety rules." Except they don't. The Tribune reported that since 1978, the federal government has tested just four samples of walleye and 24 shrimp. And when it finds fish with mercury that exceeds levels permitted by the Environmental Protection Agency, the government does not seize it. In addition, the Tribune found that U.S. tuna manufacturers often package and sell a high-mercury tuna species as light tuna—the variety the government has recommended for consumers wishing to reduce their mercury exposure.

While this constellation of factors adds up to a lot of neurological woes for Americans—mercury poisoning can lead to developmental delays for children, and headaches, fatigue and numbness in adults—the fact remains that American consumers have come to embrace the health benefits of fish. It's known as a source of lean protein with high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Tuna and swordfish were among the most-contaminated fish in the Tribune investigation. Throughout the industry, however, many fear that consumers will begin to shun fish altogether, as it becomes increasingly difficult to know whether a given species at a given store is safe, let alone fished in an environmentally responsible manner.

Smart choices
"We and a few of our member organizations are developing products for retailers and other businesses to be able to make both sustainability and health decisions for seafood," said Valerie Craig, program coordinator for Seafood Choices Alliance. One of those members is Environmental Defense, which produces consumption advisories "for all of the different species—both environmentally smart choices and not," Craig said. The information is available online at in a chart that identifies how many servings of a given fish a consumer may safely eat each month, depending on gender and age.

Environmental Defense has also provided SCA with its information to produce a new guide for retailers and restaurants, called Sourcing Seafood.

The guide lists the seasonality, conservation notes, buying tips and any known health concerns. The second half of the 152-page book is a directory of suppliers, organized alphabetically and by type of seafood. SCA members can download the guide from the organization's Web site at or order a CD-ROM. "Our Web site is being revamped and being launched in January and should be fully searchable," for this information, Craig said.

The oil change
Even with precautions such as these in place at the retail level, some consumers may still avoid fish. They may want to know, however, if fish oil is safe. "Absolutely," said Corinna Benoit, national sales manager for Nordic Naturals. "The nitty-gritty of it is that fish meat tends to concentrate the toxins, like mercury, that are present in our waters. The fish oil itself is relatively low in those toxins, so fish oil generally is safer than fish." In addition, many fish oil companies, including Nordic Naturals, source their oils from smaller fish, such as sardines and anchovies, which have less bioaccumulation of toxins, since they are lower on the food chain.

Another safety check in fish oil is the process of molecular distillation. "It's essentially teasing apart a molecule and getting the parts you want while leaving behind the parts you don't. We're able to purify the molecule and grab the EPA and DHA," Benoit said.

Besides, Benoit said, fish oil has a consistent level of omega-3s. "It's not like you can stick a litmus test paper up to a slab of salmon" and know how much fatty acid you're getting, she said.

Standard of proof
Or how much contamination, for that matter. That is the reason Henry Lovejoy, founder and president of EcoFish, developed the Seafood Safe program. The Seafood Safe label informs consumers how many servings they can safely eat each month of a given species of fish. The program uses the most conservative standards available for mercury and PCBs—those developed by the Environmental Protection Agency. They're more stringent than either the Canadian government's or the European Union's and, notably, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's.

"Consumers need a credible piece of information directly on the piece of fish they're buying," he said. And, "The only way to tell someone, with complete conviction, whether a piece of fish is safe or not is to have done enough testing on that fishery." That's because contaminant levels vary not only by species, but fish by fish within a species.

So Seafood Safe has an independent advisory panel and uses third-party laboratories to test entire lots of fish. "It's a random sampling of a lot of fish," Lovejoy said. "If there's too much variability [within a lot], it triggers more testing." And if there is significant variability within a lot, the program puts the highest results on the label.

Why not just test each piece of fish individually? "It is absolutely, 100 percent not cost-effective. Each portion of seafood would cost over $100 to properly test it" for both mercury and PCBs, Lovejoy said. He does acknowledge, however, that testing for just mercury is cheaper.

Retailers interested in assuring consumers of the safety of their fish could either test for mercury at the point of sale or join the Seafood Safe program—at least until the government steps in and either certifies fisheries or tests more consistently. While Seafood Safe's launch has been delayed by unforeseen factors, Lovejoy said that by March it should be available to anyone in the seafood industry who wants to participate. The organization is also going to launch a calculator on the Web site,, which will calculate a person's cumulative monthly consumption of mercury and PCBs.

"Our goal is to launch [Seafood Safe] in stages; we want to start in sectors that are the least complex"—for example, a salmon farm. Large supermarket chains would be the most complex, Lovejoy said, since they tend to source their fish from numerous suppliers and carry a variety of species.

"Consumers are running scared and the industry is getting killed," Lovejoy said. "The positive story is that most seafood is extremely clean. But [the uncontaminated fish] might not be the most popular species. The way to tell that story is to voluntarily enter a testing program and be able to display at point of purchase, 'This is very clean.'"

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