You Say Tomalley, I Say Communication Breakdown
Communicating the health risk associated with eating a food item that may be harmful, without frightening consumers away from it, is a delicate balance.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned consumers to avoid ingesting tomalley in American lobster due to potentially dangerous levels of toxins that cause paralytic shellfish poisoning. The FDA advisory came after similar advisories were issued earlier this summer in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Canada, following an outbreak of red tide in the region.
"The FDA was a little late to the party," says Dane Somers, executive director of the Maine Lobster Promotion Council, "but felt it necessary to go on record and issue an advisory."
This week's announcement drums up memories of another consumer advisory the FDA issued two years ago concerning Pacific Northwest raw oysters affected by an outbreak of the Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacteria. Consumers were told to avoid eating all Northwest shellfish, even though a majority of shellfish beds remained opened, marring the region's oyster, clam and mussel industries.
This time, the FDA clearly explained in its advisory that lobster meat is unaffected by the toxins that can accumulate in tomalley, which functions as a lobster's liver, pancreas and intestines.
The problem is consumers rarely get beyond the headline, and thus the message that lobster meat is safe to eat is lost. Case in point: Some Google Alerts subscribers saw this headline in their e-mail inbox yesterday: "FDA Advises Against Consumption of American Lobster (Maine Lobster)...." The remainder of the headline--the word "Tomalley"--was inadvertently cut off. If subscribers read only the headline and failed to click on the link to the FDA press release, as I'm sure many did, they would assume lobster meat is unfit for consumption, which isn't the case.
Of course, one ambiguous headline in Google Alerts won't bring lobster sales to a screeching halt. Somers says the advisory hasn't hurt Maine lobster dealers, retailers and restaurateurs, who have been quick to field consumer inquiries about "the green stuff" in a lobster's body cavity that the vast majority of Americans won't dare swallow.
"That's the challenge--to communicate what an advisory is about without being overly alarmist," he says. "Somewhere in there, there's an appropriate balance."
The FDA is only doing its job by informing consumers of the potentially hazardous levels of toxins that can accumulate in tomalley. But simply issuing a press release and letting the media and consumers decipher it may not be best way to protect public health. Notifying lobster dealers, retailers and restaurateurs so they can put in perspective the risk of eating tomalley for consumers may be a better route.