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Low-Mercury Fish Label Debuts in Northern California

If you love fish but avoid it because you're worried about high mercury content, you may be in luck -- if you live in Northern California, that is. Pacific Seafood Group, a large fish wholesaler, has partnered with Holiday Quality Foods, a chain of 19 grocery stores in rural Northern California, to test-market fish labeled as low-mercury. Fish to be sold under the new Safe Harbor brand will be tested for mercury before being packaged, and only those with mercury levels well below the FDA-recommended level of one part per million will make the cut. At least half of the fish tested are expected to be rejected -- which is scary. If Safe Harbor proves to be a safe venture, certified low-mercury fish may show up in other markets in the future. straight to the source: Los Angeles Times, Jerry Hirsch, 27 Feb 2006 http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-fish27feb27,1,3246852.story

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A Hook for Landing Mercury-Wary Eaters A new brand promises levels well below FDA limits in a move to boost sales of fresh fish.

By Jerry Hirsch, Times Staff Writer February 27 2006

SACRAMENTO ‹ When shoppers browse the seafood counters at Holiday Quality Foods' 19 grocery stores in rural Northern California today, they will find a new Safe Harbor brand, the nation's first line of low-mercury fresh fish.

The label is part of a market test by the supermarket chain and Pacific Seafood Group, one of the nation's largest fish wholesalers, to see whether customers would buy more fish if they had more information about its mercury
content. Holiday is using a new technology, developed by a high-tech company in San Rafael, Calif., that takes just minutes to measure the mercury concentration in fish rather than days.

"This is a way to regain the confidence of consumers who worry about seafood and mercury," said Chuck Holman, retail sales manager for Pacific Seafood, Holiday's supplier. "The technology is available, so we might as well use it." FOR THE RECORD:

Mercury in fish ‹An article in Monday's Business section about low-mercury fish said the material used to calibrate a mercury-testing machine came from the National Standards Bureau. The agency involved, the former National Bureau of Standards, has been known since 1988 as the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Studies have found that high concentrations of mercury in pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children are harmful to brain development. Big fish, such as swordfish, shark and tuna, tend to contain more mercury than smaller fish such as salmon.

Federal and state advisories warning women of childbearing age to avoid fish with high levels of mercury, along with other adverse seafood publicity, are starting to eat into Holiday's sales. Over the last two years, the chain's sales of fresh fish have fallen 3% while the number of questions shoppers ask about mercury has risen, said David Parrish, Holiday's director of perishables.

That's a worrying trend for Holiday, as well as for Clackamas, Ore.-based Pacific Seafood. Holman hopes that by providing more information about the mercury in fish, the industry can win back customers such as Tina Kulek of Los Alamitos.

"I think twice before buying swordfish now, and I don't have it very often, maybe once in a while in a restaurant," said Kulek, as she did the family grocery shopping at a Trader Joe's in Long Beach. Kulek said she would be more likely to purchase fish if she knew it had a low mercury level.

"It is something that should be labeled," Kulek said.

Elsewhere, other consumers are changing their eating habits because of mercury warnings.

"I love sushi and we used to eat swordfish and grill big tuna steaks," said Everett Volk, an attorney in Washington. But Volk and his wife, Rebecca, cut those items from their diet several years ago. "We were planning kids and we were worried about mercury crossing the placenta."

Pacific Seafood's efforts to regain customers start in a building the size of two large supermarkets in an industrial park on the north side of Sacramento.

There, the company processes as much as 250,000 pounds of fish and shellfish daily, six days a week. Much of the building is maintained at 34 degrees and machines churn out 45 tons of ice daily to make sure fish stays fresh as it is prepared and shipped to Albertsons supermarkets, Outback Steakhouse, Red Lobster restaurants and other clients.

Fish comes by airplane and truck from throughout the world ‹ 90-pound yellowfin tuna caught near Fiji, giant halibut that ply the icy coast of Alaska and sea bass that swim in the waters between Argentina and the Antarctic.

In the cutting room, workers wield razor-sharp, 16-inch knives as they slice blood-red ahi into quarters for delivery to sushi bars and snowy halibut into pre-packed steaks for grocery stores.

Now, more than 1,000 pounds of seafood a day makes an extra stop at a testing table where a worker uses a syringe and biopsy needle to extract a sample for insertion into the testing device developed by Micro Analytical Systems. The copy-machine-sized system takes about a minute to analyze the sample and signal whether the mercury concentration is low enough to warrant the Safe Harbor label.

"We expect to reject at least half of the fish we test," said Malcolm Wittenberg, chief executive of Micro Analytical.

Food and Drug Administration regulations say that any fish containing a mercury concentration of 1 part per million or more shouldn't be sold.

Safe Harbor brand fish is certified to have mercury concentrations well below that limit. Wittenberg has calibrated the certification to an FDA database derived from a series of random tests, reporting the lowest, median and highest levels of mercury found in different species.

Mercury in Chilean sea bass, for example, ranges from a low of 0.085 part per million to a high of 2.180 parts per million, more than twice the level at which the FDA says the fish isn't fit for human consumption. In most instances, only a fish that tests below the median level on that database ‹ in Chilean sea bass, that's 0.303 ppm ‹ gets the Safe Harbor label, Wittenberg said.

Some species, such as salmon, have consistently low reported mercury levels. For those species, the test will look for aberrations rather than the median, Wittenberg said.

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The extra cost of certifying the fish will be absorbed by Holiday for now, Parrish said, "because if we are going to sell more fish, we will make our money on the volume." He expects the wholesale price of a pound of snapper to rise to $3.49 from $3.19, for example, but the chain will continue to sell the fish for $5.69 a pound.

The test by Holiday and Pacific Seafood is attracting the attention of other chains and wholesalers. Wittenberg met with representatives of Albertsons' Bristol Farms chain Friday. An Albertsons Inc. spokeswoman declined to
comment.

"If the machine can provide better safety it would be advantageous to the industry," said Chip Mezin, co-general manager of American Fish & Seafood
Co. in Los Angeles, which provides fish for many of the large supermarket and restaurant chains in Southern California. A spokeswoman for Pacific American Fish Co., a wholesaler based in Vernon, said some of its Southern California clients have asked whether it could obtain Micro Analytical Systems' Safe Harbor-brand fish.

But Mezin and other wholesalers also want to be sure the testing device works. The FDA also is watching.

"One of the concerns that we would have would be whether it is accurate," said David Acheson, the FDA's chief medical officer.

To ensure the machine's accuracy, technicians at Pacific Seafood will periodically run a National Standards Bureau substance with a known mercury level through the device and make sure that the readings match, Wittenberg said.

The FDA hasn't advocated large-scale testing of fish and doesn't enforce its own regulation limiting mercury levels to less than 1 ppm. For the FDA to take action, the government would have to demonstrate that the particular fish had too much mercury and the consumption of that fish would be harmful, Acheson said.

"That second requirement is going to be hard to prove in a courtroom," Acheson said. "It is questionable whether any individual fish could be removed from the marketplace."

The FDA focuses on testing the average mercury level of different species of fish, Acheson said. The agency will take samples from 12 fish of the same species, mix the flesh together and test the composite.

For example, from 2002 through last month, the agency tested 87 batches of yellowfin tuna, or 1,044 fish. It found that yellowfin, often sold as ahi, averaged 0.325 ppm, but that some of the batches exceeded the 1 ppm limit. Based on that average, a 6-ounce serving would contain the maximum amount of mercury a 180-pound man should consume in a week.

"It's a better use of our resources to inform consumers what to do about fish than spending money and time testing more fish," Acheson said.

What to do about fish is not easy to answer, medical professionals say.

A study published by Harvard Medical School physician Emily Oken and other researchers in the October edition of Environmental Health Perspectives found that the overall effect of fish eaten by pregnant women appeared to be beneficial. But the study did have some contradictory findings, which is why co-author Oken said more research needed to be done.

"Mothers who ate more fish had babies with higher scores on a cognition test. We also found that higher mercury levels in the mom was associated with lower test scores for the babies. The babies that did best were moms who ate fish with low mercury levels," Oken said.

It's also not clear what approach adults should take.

San Francisco physician Jane Hightower said she had seen a correlation between heavy fish consumption by her patients with elevated blood mercury levels and complaints about a variety of ailments, including headaches, depression and memory loss. Yet multiple studies have touted fish as a low-fat protein, full of compounds that are good for the brain and cardiovascular system.

"At the end of the day, this is not about avoiding fish," Acheson said. "It is about paying attention to the types and amount of fish you eat."