Safe Harbor: Testing Fish for Mercury, Coming to a Grocer Near You

I’ve been vegetarian for 18 years, but I’ve gone through short spurts of eating seafood, though, once or twice. Once I was in Alaska, and the fish was wild salmon, freshly caught. I’ve been weary of the environmental implications of eating farmed salmon for a long time. I’ve also been concerned about the mercury present in so many species of fish. It is hard to keep track. But I know that everyone benefits from Omega 3s, and I certainly don’t get enough of this (not to mention my daughters).

I am not alone in this struggle. Many pregnant and nursing mothers, and parents are concerned about mercury in fish. And we know the FDA guidelines are not enough to protect us. I’m always a bit leery when the warning is that the fish is “not safe for pregnant and nursing women”, so is it really safe for the rest of us any other time?

Well, Safe Harbor is a company looking to help us with these dilemmas. This is a company doing independent tests for mercury in fish, and adding that informational labeling on to seafood sold at grocery stores. I had the chance to interview the Malcolm Wittenberg, President and CEO of Safe Harbor. In 2000, Mal recognized that the issue of mercury in seafood was significant. Yet, because there was no high speedy, accurate technology to test fish, consumers were being offered untested products that could have serious physiological consequences. No one could tell consumers what they were eating, and yet, the issue was being ignored because of the inability to measure the concentration of what amounts to a very insidious toxin. Here are my questions and his answers about mercury and fish, and Safe Harbor.

How did you set the safety standards? What information did you use to guide your decision?

“The goal of Safe Harbor has always been to provide consumers with knowledge of the mercury levels of the seafood that they buy to promote confidence and to enable them to plan their diets by maximizing the benefits of seafood while minimizing risks. With this in mind, MASI set its certification standards at but a fraction of the FDA action level while insuring that sufficient quantities of fish would be available in the marketplace. The company began by referring to published data made available by the FDA and through the process of conducting thousands of tests on numerous seafood species, arrived at its own certification standards for virtually all commonly consumed fin and shellfish.”

Why do you think Safe Harbor’s standards are necessary to protect people (especially pregnant and nursing women, and children)?

“Mercury is known to cause severe health problems in humans, such as nervous disorders, cardiovascular disease and reproductive problems. Mercury has been connected to Autism and Alzheimer’s, among many other brain-related maladies. Due to insufficient government standards and lax enforcement, a high proportion of seafood consumed in the U.S. contains potentially dangerous levels of mercury.

Here are a few key points the public needs to understand:

• The FDA’s seafood mercury content standards are significantly more lax than those of the EU and nearly every other country, and are insufficient to protect the public from mercury’s toxic effects.

• Exposure to even low levels of mercury can damage the brain, kidneys and disrupt neurological development in developing fetuses and children.• Due to ineffective testing, a dangerously high proportion of fish that reach U.S. consumers exceed even the FDA’s lax limits.

Mercury is a naturally occurring substance and only becomes dangerous when it reaches certain levels. Seafood is a valuable source of nutrients and is recommended by nutrition experts. Armed with the right information, people can safely enjoy its nutritional benefits and taste.

The problem is that without adequate testing, you simply don’t know how much mercury you are ingesting.”

How many retailers are using Safe Harbor to test seafood? Is there growing interest?

“Several U.S. and Canadian retailers are now beginning to offer Safe Harbor. Interest is growing rapidly, and deals are in the works to provide Safe Harbor through several of the nation’s largest retail chains.”

Where can consumers find Safe Harbor tested fish?

Fish bearing the Safe Harbor seal is currently sold at Bristol Farms and Haggen/Top Foods stores. However, current programs are in the works that will make Safe Harbor seafood widely available throughout the United States and Canada.

How can concerned parents advocate for higher standards from their grocers?

“Currently most stores have not implemented any testing standards, or insufficient ones at best. Concerned parents can write to their grocers of choice and request mercury testing in seafood.”

What sort of environmental practices does Safe Harbor use?

“Safe Harbor certifies fish caught by a growing number of suppliers using sustainable methods.”

Safe Harbor can help seafood loving families stay safe and healthier by avoiding mercury. Take this issue into your hands. Ask you your grocers to supply you with safer, mercury tested fish from Safe Harbor. Thanks to Safe Harbor CEO, Malcolm Wittenberg, for this interview and for supplying parents with tested fish and information about mercury in seafood.

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