ORLANDO, Fla. - More bad publicity for seafood, this time generated by the Environmental Protection Agency, will be hitting the headlines soon, warned an official from the National Fisheries Institute, Arlington, Va.
NFI president, Lee Weddig, speaking at the Food Marketing Institute's Seafood Merchandising Conference here, said the EPA wants more restrictive regulations for the electric power industry regarding mercury emissions, "so it is generating information that would suggest that mercury in fish is causing a great public health hazard."
Weddig maintained that this assertion does not hold water, and will be one more in a line of unfounded yet potentially damaging attacks on seafood.
"You will find this in the press over the next couple of months: stories about mercury and seafood in a public health situation, which is just not true."
He said the EPA report is one of several factors likely to have an effect on business in the coming year. He also reported on the status of a possible generic national advertising campaign for seafood. (See related story, Page 30.)
Of the EPA claims about mercury and fish, Weddig said, "We're very much in opposition to this because it just is not true." He said data collected by the Food and Drug Administration indicates the mercury levels found even in populations with high consumption rates of fish are not significant from the standpoint of safety.
"(Seafood safety) could be better; no quarrel with that, but it is not a national crisis," Weddig said.
In making its current claim, EPA is using data from an incident in Iraq in the 1970s, where an outbreak of illness was due to exposure to mercury. "(Their) exposure level was the equivalent of eating 20 swordfish steaks per day for 40 days in a row," noted Weddig.
Weddig also warned that consumer advocates are likely to fuel rumors that seafood is not inspected properly, or is unsafe, when new inspection rules are put in place.
"But again, the truth of this is no matter how you slice the statistics and the public health information, there is nothing that would show that seafood as provided to the public through retail stores and food-service industry is [any less safe than] the other animal proteins," he said.
Weddig also dispelled the notion that the industry is facing severe supply shortages because of overfishing.
"[Following a decrease in 1989], we're back up to 101 million metric tons being produced from the world's oceans and this is hardly a picture of overfishing.
"Aquaculture has been moving ahead very speedily; in fact, it's up now at a growth rate of 2 million metric tons more per year," he added. Salmon is one species often said to be in danger of depletion, but this is also a mistaken perception, Weddig said.
"In the U.S., salmon production has gone from 560 million to over 900 million pounds in a very brief period of time. Several salmon runs on the West Coast are in danger, but the overall production is in excellent shape."
Finally, Weddig said, NFI research into the feasibility of a national seafood promotion shows an industry divided.
"We've spent a lot of time and money to try to find out whether the processing and production industry would support such a program. Frankly, the industry is split about 50-50," he said.
The main objections from suppliers have been that a generic program cannot perform adequately or equally for all species. "Right now, we're doing some research to see whether a cogent, persuasive message could be put together that would cover all seafood."