Computers Utilized for Quickly Checking Fish Mercury Levels

Pacific Seafood, a wholesale distributor in California, has become the first seafood processor in the nation to offer its customers the option of testing the level of mercury in the fish they purchase.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Pacific Seafood, a wholesale distributor in Sacramento, Monday became the first seafood processor in the nation to offer its customers the option of testing the level of mercury in the fish they purchase.

The testing system, called Safe Harbor, was developed by Micro Analytical Systems Inc. The computer-based testing system makes it possible to quickly and affordably test fish for mercury levels before it leaves the processing plant on its way to grocery stores and restaurants.

Malcolm Wittenberg, a chemical engineer and CEO of MASI, a five-person company based in San Rafael, says his wife challenged him to come up with an answer for consumers who are concerned about how much mercury they consume.

"My wife subscribes to various health and parenting magazines," Wittenberg said. "She kept reading cautions about the mercury levels in fish and how women and young children should avoid certain fish. One day she said, 'Malcolm, you should do something about this.'"

Wittenberg worked with Canadian scientists over a period of five years. Last week, they were ready to install the first computer at Pacific Seafood and begin testing. Dan Nelson, vice president of MASI, was conducting the final installation tests and training Pacific Seafood staff before the system was launched.

"You simply insert the needle into the fish, remove a core sample and insert the needle into the computer console," Nelson explained. "The computer does an analysis and prints the results on the screen in one minute. The fish is then tagged that it meets or is below the government standard. It's such a simple process that it takes very little training to do the test."

Chuck Holman, account manager at Pacific Seafood, said his company is excited about the prospects.

"Up until now we have had the ability to test seafood, but it was very costly and it took a week or more to get the results," he said. "Malcolm's system is so easy to use and fast that we are able to test fish right here in the plant."

Could scare customers off

Holiday Quality Foods is the first grocery store to began offering mercury-tested fish to its customers. The market, based in Cottonwood, near Red Bluff, has 19 Northern California stores, including one in Auburn.

The decision to call attention to mercury levels in fish was heavily weighed by executives at Holiday. Nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. Reminding customers of that, even if the fish is below the maximum government approved levels, could cause some customers to flee from the fish case.

"Our customers know it's out there and they are concerned," said Dave Parrish, director of perishables for Holiday markets. "Now we have a way of addressing it and offering information to help them make informed decisions. They will have confidence that the fish they purchase has been certified by Safe Harbor and it contains mercury levels below what the government has determined to be acceptable."

Parrish says the labeling on tested fish will not list exact amounts of mercury, but will indicate that the fish has been tested and is below acceptable maximum levels.

"Consumers can go to the Safe Harbor Web site ( and look for the exact amounts allowed by the government," Parrish said.

Wittenberg says that the EPA and National Academy of Sciences recommends that adults consume no more than 1 microgram of mercury for every 22 pounds of body weight per day.

"A typical 6-ounce serving of albacore tuna would give a 45-pound child four times the amount of mercury considered safe for a week," Wittenberg said. "A 180-pound man eating the same can of albacore tuna would also exceed his weekly limit."

After tested fish has been available in the Holiday stores for a month, Parrish said focus groups will offer feedback on the program.

"We look at this as something similar to our organics program," Parrish said. "Customers asked for more organic foods because they were concerned about the environment and contaminants in their diets. Mercury testing will allow them to take that concern a step further."

The cost to Holiday markets for testing the fish is about 30 cents per pound, which Parrish says will not be passed on to the customers.

"We have to see what kind of response we get and how much time it requires," Parrish said. "Remember, these tested fish will be kept segregated as they go through the processing system. Each will be assigned a number so that they can be tracked. All of that does add to the cost." Benefits outweigh worries

Dietitians fear that being made aware of the mercury content in fish might backfire and cause consumers to switch to less-healthful protein choices.

Jeannie Moloo, a Roseville dietitian and national spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, said as long as consumers are aware of the types of fish and the quantities they eat, the benefits of eating fish outweigh the problems with mercury contamination.

"The American Heart Association recommends two 3-ounce servings a week because of the heart benefits," Moloo said. "There are studies which suggest that there are certain mechanisms in fish that fight inflammation and cause blood cells to be less sticky, which means blood would be less likely to form clots. It is not just a matter of substituting lower-fat fish for a higher-fat protein in your diet. Fish can help lower blood pressure and may reduce levels of triglycerides." Government standards

The stand of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on eating fish, as found on the Web site

"Fish and shellfish are an important part of a healthy diet. Fish and shellfish contain high-quality protein and other essential nutrients, are low in saturated fat and contain omega-3 fatty acids. A well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fish and shellfish can contribute to heart health and children's proper growth and development. So, women and young children in particular should include fish or shellfish in their diets due to the many nutritional benefits.

"However, nearly all fish and shellfish contain traces of mercury. For most people, the risk from mercury by eating fish and shellfish is not a health concern. Yet, some fish and shellfish contain higher levels of mercury that may harm an unborn baby or young child's developing nervous system. The risks from mercury in fish and shellfish depend on the amount of fish and shellfish eaten and the levels of mercury in the fish and shellfish. Therefore, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency are advising women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers and young children to avoid some types of fish and eat fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury."

The FDA and EPA say king mackerel, shark, swordfish and tilefish have higher levels of mercury and should be avoided by women of childbearing age and young children. In addition, this same group should eat no more than 6 ounces of tuna steak or canned white albacore tuna per week because of mercury contamination.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

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