Mal Wittenberg

When it comes to the mercury-in-fish debate, opinions differ vastly. Some say the health risks posed by a steady diet of long-living, predatory fish like tuna and swordfish is real, and others say the health risks are hypothetical. Some say the government isn’t adequately warning consumers about mercury in fish, and others say the government is only confusing consumers.

But just about everyone agrees that the mercury-in-fish debate is not dissipating anytime soon. At the forefront of the issue is Mal Wittenberg, CEO of Micro Analytical Systems (MASI) in San Rafael, Calif. A few years ago, he and his colleagues developed technology and equipment that measures the level of mercury found in fish in a timely and cost-effective manner and introduced the Safe Harbor mercury-testing program and accompanying label.

They’re making inroads in the marketplace. Among MASI’s clients are H&N Foods in Los Angeles; Pacific American Fish Co. (PAFCO) in Los Angeles; Ocean Beauty Seafoods in Seattle; Export Packers Co. Ltd. (one of Canada’s largest food distributors); Haggen Food and Pharmacy in eastern Washington; the Fish Market in the San Francisco area; and Citra Mina in General Santos City, Philippines, which handles and tests 30 metric tons of tuna daily. Just last week, Geisha House, Bella Cucina and Ketchup restaurants in Hollywood, Calif., which are owned by the Dolce Group, became MASI’s newest clients.

SeafoodSource caught up with Wittenberg late last week.

Hedlund: What do you attribute to increased demand for your technology and services?

Wittenberg: The mercury-in-fish issue isn’t going away. There are those in the seafood industry that wish it would. We certainly wish it would, from the standpoint of [public] health. But then there are those in the industry that believe the best way to approach this problem is to deal with it head-on. And then logistically, we’re able to do things now that we weren’t able to do in the past. We have more equipment; the equipment is in its third generation now. It’s extremely robust and can now operate in far-off locations with less babysitting. And [by] being affiliated, for example, with H&N and PAFCO, we’re able to deal with the distribution side so that if a small [retail] chain located in a remote area wants our services we can [reach them].

How do you respond to a potential client who says, “Why bring attention to the mercury-in-fish issue?”
What we hear is, “I don’t know if we want to get involved in this issue because our customers aren’t telling us that they’re concerned about this issue.” So we tell them you’re not going to hear from them because they realize that complaining to you isn’t going to do anything. It’s like complaining about the weather. We dealt with a supplier in southern Florida, and one of the company’s principles told us that his highly educated daughter was pregnant three times and refused to eat fish because she was concerned about mercury. She never once went to her local retailer and said, “I’m concerned about mercury.” She simply stayed away from seafood. We try to tell everyone in the seafood industry that we’re not the enemy. We’re not trying to promote mercury to keep people away from the seafood counter. We’re trying to promote our services to bring people back to the seafood counter to increase their consumption. We try to make the message positive. Let’s face it, it’s to everyone’s advantage to eat more fish.

Any word on whether the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will change its consumer mercury advisory?
I personally met with the FDA. At the time I met with them — this was during the Bush administration — they showed no interest in mercury testing, even when we [told] them that importers know how to circumvent the limited testing the FDA is doing. They claim the FDA’s obligation is to message the public — to tell the public what it is they should be doing or not doing, principally that there are certain high-risk fish that certain segments of the population should stay away from. Now the FDA is talking about saying less and less about the mercury issue [because] they say it is harming seafood consumption and the benefits of [eating] seafood outweigh the risks from mercury. I’m encouraged by the current administration. [President] Obama has shown interest in the mercury issue in the past when he was in the Illinois legislature. And there seems to be a more proactive approach under this administration than there was in the last. But it’s hard for me to gauge.

What’s next for MASI?
I hope we reach a tipping point where those in the industry say, “This is not something we’re afraid of. Let’s embrace it and move forward.” Quite candidly, I think that’ll happen quicker in Europe than it’ll happen here. From the limited discussions I’ve had with the Europeans, there’s a little more concern about food safety, health and well being there. Their [mercury] action limits are lower than ours, which is indicative of [greater] recognition of the problem.

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