EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — A growing number of California supermarkets are implementing programs that offer consumers seafood with mercury levels significantly below federal thresholds.
Most recently, Bristol Farms here announced its move to sell Safe Harbor-certified, low-mercury seafood exclusively in all 16 stores, including its one Lazy Acres store in Santa Barbara.
“The reason why we started it and decided to look into it was because customers see a sign that warns them about mercury content in seafood on the very counter that we're trying to sell them product, and they get very confused about what an appropriate level is, how safe the product is, how much they should eat,” Kevin Davis, chief executive officer and president of Bristol Farms, told SN. The issue is particularly compelling in California, since state law requires retailers to post advisories at the point of sale for species likely to contain mercury, such as swordfish, tilefish and tuna.
Since the law took effect, sales have slowed, according to Davis. “I'd say that seafood sales are tougher than they used to be. I think implementation of the Safe Harbor program should help, but should just give customers confidence that they don't have to worry about our seafood being higher in mercury than the government standards provide for, and actually, we're testing all the different species at levels way below the government's standards.”
Cottonwood, Calif.-based Holiday Quality Foods implemented Safe Harbor certification for all fresh and frozen fillets in its stores last February and expects to offer Safe Harbor-certified shellfish in the near future. Within six months of implementation, sales of fresh and frozen fillets increased by 14%, according to Dave Parrish, director of perishables. “It really turned out to be quite a big thing for us,” he said.
“When we first rolled it out, we got a lot of feedback from our customers, saying, ‘Wow, we're really glad you're doing this, we almost quit eating seafood.’ Swordfish went down 50% from the time we had to post those warnings. It hasn't come back really strong, but it's much better now.”
Through Micro Analytical Systems Inc., San Rafael, Calif., seafood is tested at supplier docks for mercury levels well below the Food and Drug Administration standards and is then Safe Harbor-certified. “The government standard for mercury levels is one part per million, and every fish sold in the country is expected to meet that level, and of course no one tests and knows whether it does or doesn't,” said Mal Wittenberg, MASI's CEO.
“Our view is that one part per million isn't strict enough — that people looking for confidence in what they buy want a stricter standard than that. Swordfish has the highest mercury level that we certify to, which is at 0.8 parts per million, so that's 20% below the FDA standard,” he continued. “We're testing salmon at 0.03, which is 97% below the FDA standard.”
In addition to Bristol Farms and Holiday Quality Foods, MASI works with Paradise Foods and has been contacted by large national chains about implementing the program as well, Wittenberg noted.
MASI provides retailers with brochures, pin tags and signage, as well as training.
“We think that regardless of what happens with the sales of seafood, the expansion of the program or anything else we might do, it's a very good thing for us to know ourselves that we're buying product from the safest waters available,” Davis said.