Raw truths


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
November 3, 2009

Selling the health benefits of seafood to U.S. consumers has gotten unnecessarily complicated recently. Not only is the Gulf of Mexico’s live oyster market facing possible draconian federal food-safety intervention, but a survey revealed that mercury in seafood is a major concern for many affluent consumers, despite mounting evidence that it shouldn’t worry anyone with a well-balanced diet that includes regular and varied seafood consumption.

Oysters first: The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s proposed ban on raw oyster sales during the summer months, starting in 2011, is a needless measure. Not only would this proposal contradict shellfish-monitoring protocols the Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Commission says it established with the FDA, but it would also strip consumers’ choices.

The Vibrio vulnificus bacterium in Gulf oysters has long been a problem, but it’s controlled. Innovative techniques developed by processors — as well as measures among cooperating state shellfish safety officials — have kept foodborne illnesses at bay, but the voices demanding raw oysters are loud and proud. Perhaps oysters’ reputation precedes them: The Center for Science in the Public Interest recently ranked raw oysters among the 10 “riskiest” foods in a report that failed to provide much-needed perspective.

According to CSPI research, raw oysters accounted for 132 outbreaks causing 3,409 illnesses since 1990. However, lettuce and other leafy greens were responsible for 363 outbreaks and 13,568 documented illnesses over the same time period. People certainly eat more greens than live shellfish, but as of yet there’s been no mention of a potential seasonal ban on salads, almost always eaten raw. With both FDA and ISSC oversight and warnings about the health risks associated with raw oyster consumption printed on every restaurant menu, the general public has been adequately warned.

Next, a survey that SeafoodSource reported on earlier this week provided equally troubling news because it indicated how poorly educated consumers are regarding their food supply. The survey asked 600 consumers between the ages of 20 and 64 which food-packaging claims imply that food is healthier, safer and ethically produced; “low-mercury seafood” topped the list with 61 percent of respondents saying those words had utmost importance to them.

What’s upsetting about this is that roughly nine of 10 respondents were employed and had attended college, meaning they were educated and able-minded people equipped to decipher a vast amount of easily accessible information. It’s unfortunate that this coveted demographic known for higher seafood consumption isn’t quite getting the full message that seafood is safe and healthful.

What would the outcome have been if the survey respondents had the latest health advice regarding seafood consumption in front of them, courtesy of the FDA? The federal food-safety agency lists only four species (shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish) with elevated mercury levels that should be avoided by at-risk groups like pregnant women, young children and women of childbearing age. Even though canned tuna has trace levels of mercury, it’s still not enough to prevent the FDA from recommending even the at-risk population to eat it twice a week.

Much education must be done on seafood health and safety; the FDA is a trusted authority, but its hands are more than full. Seafood belongs in the conversation about the healthiest foods to eat, despite mixed messages from government and media. Every survey or story about seafood and health can be viewed as an opportunity to discuss the subject again and educate. Believe it — there will be more.

Thank you,
James Wright
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

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