Finding a Safe Harbor from Mercury


James Wright, Senior Editor

Published on
January 17, 2008

Mercury in seafood - has any other food-safety issue been more grievously misreported by the mainstream media and, as a result, less understood by consumers? There's no questioning the naturally occurring neurotoxin's harm; studies have linked methylmercury contamination to delayed fetal development and health problems in adults. But the source of mercury is controversial. Environmental groups inform consumers that seafood is the main culprit, and even the government says to avoid large, long-living predatory species like swordfish and king mackerel. How do we know that any given fish in a display cooler is high in mercury? A California company has an answer.

In 2005, Micro Analytical Systems Inc. of San Rafael, Calif., unveiled mercury-testing equipment for seafood processors that provides results in usually less than a minute. Some of North America's largest seafood suppliers, including Pacific Seafood Group in Clackamas, Ore., use the innovative, desktop computer-sized equipment to measure the mercury content of fish for certain buyers who want certified low-mercury seafood. If a sample has 25 percent or less of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's mercury ''action level'' of 1 part per million, it earns a Safe Harbor Certified Seafood label.

To prove the capabilities of its technology, MASI yesterday released results of a series of random tests it conducted last November and December. The company purchased 142 samples of swordfish, tuna and halibut at 19 supermarkets in California and Florida and reported that 80 percent of the swordfish samples (33 out of 41) had mercury levels greater than 1 ppm.

The initiative's purpose was to provide a ''more robust idea of what the consumer is facing,'' says a company spokesperson. Mal Wittenberg, CEO of MASI, said in a press release that if consumers have more confidence in seafood, ''they will enjoy it more frequently, and that is our goal.''

It's a commendable goal. Because of all the media hype about mercury (accuracy be damned in some instances), demand is growing for food that is certified safe. However, David Martosko, director of research for the Center for Consumer Freedom in Washington, D.C., says no health risk exists for seafood and he worries about mounting consumer confusion.

''The bottom line is that there are no 'dangerous' fish in our grocery stores,'' Martosko told me yesterday via e-mail. ''And fear generated by sensationalism about mercury ��" whether it comes from activists or opportunistic industry ��" will inevitably have negative public-health consequences. I'm sure everything MASI is marketing is wholesome and safe. But so is all the other fish behind the seafood counter.''

More information certainly canâ??t hurt. Neither can eating seafood.

Want seafood news sent to your inbox?

You may unsubscribe from our mailing list at any time. Diversified Communications | 121 Free Street, Portland, ME 04101 | +1 207-842-5500