RICHMOND BEACH, Wash. -- The Food and Drug Administration's approval of a qualified health claim for omega-3 fatty acids is a step in the right direction, seafood industry advocates agreed. However, education and marketing efforts must continue in order to raise consumer awareness of these benefits and counteract concerns over pollutants sometimes found in fish.
Omega-3 fatty acids, found primarily in "oily" fish like salmon, tuna, herring and lake trout, can reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, FDA says, paving the way for new labeling and health-oriented marketing efforts.
"We've been waiting 25 years for this," said Evie Hansen, founder of National Seafood Educators, based here. "We started National Seafood Educators knowing that the issue of health was going to sell seafood."
Survey data indicates that about 50% of Americans already understand the benefits of omega-3s, Hansen said. Despite longstanding agreement among scientists and doctors regarding fish as a healthy dietary choice, the seafood industry until now has had few ways to communicate that message in a simple fashion.
For example, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, Juneau, for several years lobbied the American Heart Association to allow the use of its "Heart Check" logo on canned salmon. The criteria for the logo, however, are based on FDA's recommendations for total fat intake, which rules out the fish that contain omega-3s.
"They were making no distinction between good fats and bad fats," said Laura Fleming, spokeswoman for ASMI. "This recent qualified health claim is a step in the right direction. Regulatory action taken by the FDA can take years to find its way into the mainstream consumer consciousness, but it's important to keep these things moving forward because they do ultimately impact what goes on the label and what people see when they go into a grocery store." The American Heart Association does recommend eating two servings of fish per week.
Published reports indicated FDA is planning to allow signs and point-of-sale materials at fresh seafood counters to highlight the health claims. Hansen said NSE plans to offer retailers and suppliers some of these materials, although she said several details are still under discussion with FDA.
The health claim may also provide a counterweight to negative news stories regarding industrial toxins like methyl mercury and PCBs that have been found to accumulate in fish.
"Food safety and nutritional benefits are certainly two separate things," said Fleming. "But if there are allegations that a food is unsafe to eat, it gives consumers pause, and often steers them toward another food choice."
Fleming said the issues are an unfortunate distraction to ASMI's health-oriented marketing message, particularly since several studies -- including one released by Alaska in August -- have shown the region's waters to be clean and fish to be toxin free. Most reports of methyl mercury and PCBs have been focused on large game fish like shark and swordfish, as well as farmed salmon and wild freshwater fishes.
Educating customers is key to explaining health benefits and to changing misconceptions. The health claims present an opportunity for proactive dialogue with customers, but Fleming and Hansen agreed teaching customers how to prepare fish at home is even more important to improving sales.