New test promises safe fish faster

Rachel Dornhelm Jul 24, 2006

TESS VIGELAND: Head to the fish department of your local grocery store and you’ll find lots of warnings about mercury. Children and pregnant women are supposed to watch their fish intake because of mercury levels. For the rest of us it’s not about dropping fish from our diets. Experts agree fish provide great health benefits. It’s about watching the type and volume consumed. A new technology could help monitor that. And the company that makes it is hoping to reel in a windfall. Rachel Dornhelm reports.

FISH SHOP WORKER: Hi, can I help you?

CUSTOMER: Yes, I’d like to get a slab of the red snapper, please.

RACHEL DORNHELM: Business seems steady at this Holiday Quality Foods seafood counter in California’s Central Valley. But Dave Parrish, head of perishable foods for the 24-store chain, says sales of some fish have dropped dramatically in the past few years.

DAVE PARRISH: We saw a huge decrease in sales, especially on swordfish. Our swordfish sales dropped at least 50 percent, if not more at times, and it was all due to the mercury warnings.

Those mercury warnings are a California law requiring most seafood counters to post cautionary signs aimed at pregnant women and children. Parrish says sales dropped for a number of fish. He wasn’t sure what to do. Then he heard about a program in development called “Safe Harbor.” It’s a new technology that measures mercury levels in minutes.

PARRISH: Never before have we been able to test a product and get results back fast enough to have fresh product. To this point it takes five to seven days to send it off to a lab and get the results back. Well, fresh fish is not going to be fresh anymore after that.

Parrish says his stores kicked off a pilot program this spring. Now they’re ordering 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of Safe Harbor fish a day.

PARRISH: The neat thing about this is we aren’t doing random testing. We test every single fillet or every single fish.

Only fish that register well below the Food and Drug Administration’s allowable levels are certified with the “Safe Harbor” seal. Parrish says it’s a complex issue and his big job now is educating consumers. They seem to be responding favorably.

CUSTOMER 1: Just a big seafood lover. So in the back of my mind it always concerned me. Because, like I say, I do eat seafood twice a week. So, now that they’re implementing this, it’s a little bit more of a relief.

CUSTOMER 2: If they want to advertise that it’s low in mercury and certified so . . . Yeah, sure. I like safety.

CUSTOMER 3: I think they’re, uh, . . . That shows that there’s a certain kind of caring for their consumer. And I’m glad to hear that, actually.

Parrish says he is paying about 30 cents more per pound for tested fish, but he’s not passing the cost onto customers. His company bets the investment will pay off in the long run. In the first three months of the program seafood sales jumped 13 percent.

Malcolm Wittenberg is founder and CEO of Micro Analytical Systems, which certifies the fish. He says his company’s standards are rigorous.

MALCOLM WITTENBERG: We’re rejecting probably about 50 percent of the fish that we test, and on some days we’re rejecting 90 percent of it.

Wittenberg says he thinks the federal agencies are doing a good job, just without the technology to enforce their limits. Meanwhile the FDA has said it’s a better use of its time and money to focus on education, not more testing. And the government hasn’t approved Wittenberg’s device as a diagnostic tool. Still, Wittenberg says he thinks he’s ahead of the curve on policy.

WITTENBERG: I think capitalism, entrepreneurism, does that. I mean there is that profit motive that drives people that of course you don’t have in a government agency.

UC-Berkeley public policy professor Margaret Taylor says Wittenberg has lots of company among environmental entrepreneurs.

MARGARET TAYLOR: In many cases you’ll see individuals or small firms getting into an area before the federal government or the state government really gets involved because they recognize a need.

She says one example is wind power where 60 percent of patents are held by individual inventors. Taylor says many green entrepreneurs dream of their innovations becoming the government’s gold standard.

TAYLOR: And so a lot of times if you’re an environmental technology producer, you actually would kind of like to see your thing being enshrined in regulation as the best available technology, because anybody who’s dealing with this problem has to use your device.

When it comes to mercury there don’t appear to be any policy changes on the horizon. For now, Wittenberg is focused on the private sector. He says he is currently in talks with seafood outlets like Whole Foods and tuna canner Chicken of the Sea.

In Colusa, Calif., I’m Rachel Dornhelm for Marketplace.

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