PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- Consumers, bombarded with conflicting messages about the health benefits and environmental dangers of fish consumption, want straight answers at the seafood counter.
To help the industry address questions, a seafood distributor is working on a testing and labeling solution that will be available to retailers, suppliers and restaurant owners later this year.
Henry Lovejoy developed the Seafood Safe label, which uses the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's guidelines to determine how many servings of a particular fish women of childbearing age may eat safely per month. Lovejoy operates EcoFish, a seafood distribution company that sources and distributes products from fishermen and aquaculture operations evaluated for sustainable harvesting practices.
"It's a conundrum in the seafood industry," said Lovejoy. "The medical community is overwhelmingly recommending that consumers eat more fish, but then people hear on the news that fish are contaminated with mercury and PCBs."
These reports are prompting seafood lovers to ask tough questions at their supermarket seafood counters. Lovejoy believes the safety concerns could cause many to limit their overall consumption of fish. The goal of the Seafood Safe label is to understand and accept those concerns, and "whittle them down to one number," Lovejoy said.
Featuring the words "Seafood Safe" in large letters, the label features a note indicating the fish has been tested for mercury and PCBs. Using standards based on the strictest recommendations set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a red number on the label reflects how many four-ounce servings the EPA would recommend that women of childbearing age eat per month based on species, weight at catch, seasonality, regionality and testing provided by an independent laboratory.
Some retailers might balk at the thought of a label that recommends a monthly consumption ceiling for a food, but the seafood industry needs to begin addressing the problem more proactively, Lovejoy said.
If mainstream media continue to cover stories on mercury and PCBs, food retailers and restaurants could field more questions from customers. When state governments step in to mandate an education process, the results do not always make businesses happy.
Last year, California, for example, sued several major retailers and restaurants for not adequately advertising the dangers of mercury at their seafood counters.
"The label provides the level of information that customers need to make an educated decision, while emphasizing that the vast majority of seafood is safe to consume several times a month," said Lovejoy.
Seafood Safe is fine-tuning the testing and labeling process at EcoFish, which sources and distributes seafood from fishermen and aquaculture operations that have been evaluated for sustainable harvesting practices.