Break Out the Skull and Crossbones


Steven Hedlund

Published on
January 27, 2008

Oceana and the New York Times stoked the food-scare fire last week, each publishing reports claiming the methylmercury content of the swordfish and sushi-grade tuna they had tested approached or exceeded the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's limit of 1 part per million. At least one supermarket chain - Harris Teeter, which Oceana cited in its report - reacted by agreeing to post mercury-warning signs in its seafood departments. The Matthews, N.C., retailer may have extinguished the flames, but is it really enough to keep the scare from turning into a full-fledged blaze?

Harris Teeter isn't the only supermarket chain that posts signs in its seafood departments warning consumers about the health risk associated with the neurotoxin. Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Safeway and some Albertsons stores also do so, according to Oceana, a Washington, D.C., conservation group.

I learned this weekend that Fresh & Easy - a convenience-focused, value-oriented supermarket chain that British retail giant Tesco launched in Southern California, Las Vegas and Phoenix late last year - posted a mercury warning sign at the seafood case in its Scottsdale, Ariz., store. The sign includes the FDA advisory that pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children avoid eating swordfish, shark, tilefish and king mackerel and limit canned albacore tuna consumption.

Why on earth would a retailer post a warning sign about fish species it doesn't sell? I haven't visited a Fresh & Easy yet, but I really doubt the 10,000-square-foot stores carry shark, tilefish and king mackerel. What's worse, Fresh & Easy's seafood departments are self-service, so there are no employees readily available to explain the FDA advisory. Chances are consumers, especially women of childbearing age, will only glance at the sign and move on - to the beef and poultry offerings.

If a retailer chooses to post mercury warning signs in its seafood departments, it should have a knowledgeable staff on hand to clarify that the advisory applies only to a small percentage of the population and to five fish species, three of which are pretty obscure.

If not, you might as well draw a skull and crossbones on the sign, because consumers won't take the time to read the fine print.

Tesco and Harris Teeter may have kept Oceana and other conservation groups off their backs for the time being. But slapping a long-winded warning sign to the seafood case and calling it good won't help retailers grow their seafood sales in the long run.

Best regards,
Steven Hedlund
Associate Editor
SeaFood Business

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