Is Your Fish High in Mercury? Safe Harbor Knows
I once heard a story about a lonely man who ate a tuna sandwich for lunch every day for 20 years. His cause of death? Mercury poisoning. I can’t say if this is true or not, but it certainly gets the point across: There could be something fishy in your fish.
For years, we’ve been hearing about the potential hazards of eating fish with a high mercury content. But what have we done about it? What can we do about it? Do we eat fish anyway? Or must we say goodbye to the fish we love?
Malcom Wittenberg founded Safe Harbor as a way to help consumers know which fish are safe to eat. Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke by phone with Wittenberg about his revolutionary technology. — Megan Lisman, Intern
WITTENBERG: Safe Harbor sprang from my interest in mercury’s effects on human physiology. In 2000 – 2001, the mercury issue was being widely talked about in the media. I heard commentators noting that humans consume high levels of mercury from seafood. But the problem was difficult to solve, because the only way to test the levels of mercury at the time was in a laboratory, which is very expensive.
I saw a problem with no solution, so I took it upon myself to connect with people I’ve had relationships with for years, who are skilled in science, math, and physics. We sat down and tried to find a solution to this problem. It took us from 2001 to 2004 to create our technology, and we began testing fish commercially in 2004.
BPGL: How did the first test kit work in 2004, and is it the same technology that you use today?
WITTENBERG: Initially, we developed a test kit for the consumer to use at home. The idea was, the consumer would buy the fish and put a small piece of it into a vile, shake it up, and see their results. This way the consumer would know how much mercury was in the fish they were about to eat.
After we spent about a year trying to develop that technology, we conducted several focus groups. We found that most people were not interested in testing the fish at home; they’d rather have the product tested before they bought it. If the test showed a high mercury level, what were they going to do with the fish? They can’t take it back to the store, so they either eat it or discard it. We discontinued research in that area and went back to the drawing board.
We began developing a robust, electromechanical device that can be brought into a processing facility to test fish as they are caught. Our machine is accurate and fast. It is capable of testing fish at a rate of better than one a minute, and it’s sensitive to 10 parts per billion (ppb).
BPGL: When you say you can “test fish as they are caught,” do you mean that you have someone on board the ship who is doing the testing?
WITTENBERG: Our operators are stationed at docks around the world. We have machines located in Los Angeles; Seattle; Washington; Rome; General Santos City in the Philippines: and a suburb of Santiago, Chile. We will shortly be in Ecuador.
When the ships are unloaded, workers grade the fish. They do this by laying the fish out, taking a small section from each fish, and inspecting the color and fat content. This takes a little bit of time. While that is being done, we are testing the fish with our device. By the time the grading process is over, our testing procedure is done as well, so we don’t disturb the work they are doing.
BPGL: How do you perform the testing?
WITTENBERG: While our specific technology is private to us, I can tell you the way we do it. We created our own biopsy needle that is inserted into the muscle of the fish. It retrieves about a 50 milligram sample, roughly the size of your pinky nail, which is then placed into the device. The machine vacuums up the sample and sends it through the device. A minute later, the operator sees either a red or green screen. If the screen is red, the fish is over the certification level; and if the screen turns green, the fish is at a safer level. For example, with yellow fin tuna the certification level is 0.4 ppm. When the fish passes our screening test, it receives the Safe Harbor tag.
Our testing machine is programmed to the species of fish being tested, the location, date, and the mercury content of that fish. The machine is in internet contact with us at our home office. If needed, we can get on a computer and remotely access any of our testing machines to view the operators’ results.
In addition, the Safe Harbor tag is coded, meaning that the fish can be traced from the time it leaves the plant to its arrival at the retailer. The tag contains the information found which can be used to inform the retailer of the mercury level of the fish, where it was caught, and when it was tested.
BPGL: Does your device test all species of fish?
WITTENBERG: We have programmed our machine with all major species of fish that people consume. One day, we will be checking for halibut, and the next day, we will be checking yellow fin tuna. Once the species of fish is identified, the operator simply presses the touch screen to indicate the species they are testing. The machine is then ready to accept or reject that particular fish at the certification level we established for that species.
We test fish of all sizes. Small fish are generally lower in mercury, so we test them in batches. To determine their mercury levels, we plug in a mathematical algorithm that provides us with better than 99 percent accuracy that the batch meets our certification standards.
BPGL: When you’re testing fish on the dock, and you find one that is high in mercury, what do you do with it?
WITTENBERG: The fish that do not pass our certification standards simply do not get tagged with our Safe Harbor label. They go back into the general population of the plant to be sold to other vendors. There is no facility in which we test 100 percent of their output. The customers for the Safe Harbor brand represent a very tiny percentage of the fish coming through a particular facility. We test the quantity of fish needed for the demands of our customer, and never see the vast majority of the fish in the facility.
If fish don’t meet our certification standards, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are bad fish. We test fish at extremely strict mercury standards. For example, Safe Harbor certifies salmon at a 0.1 ppm. If the operator tests the salmon and it is at 0.2 ppm, that salmon is fine. There is nothing wrong with it. It just doesn’t have the value added that our Safe Harbor label attributes to the product.
BPGL: While your operators are out on the docks, are there any other organizations doing similar testing?
WITTENBERG: Basically, this is the only program I know of that tests fish for mercury. Certainly, the government and the FDA don’t do it. Perhaps they give people the perception that an adequate job is done in testing food being imported in this country, but in reality, that’s not the case.
We know the shortcomings of the FDA testing. They conduct spot checks on some high-mercury fish, like swordfish, but the fishing industry can easily get around those tests.
A typical swordfish weighs anywhere between 125 to 300 pounds. Vendors are bringing in small swordfish, called pups, weighing around 60 to 80 pounds — half the weight of a large swordfish. The vendor will bring in a few hundred pounds of pups in a day. The FDA tests them, and they pass, because they haven’t lived long, so their mercury levels are low.
After the vendor passes the FDA screening with their pups, they will bring in their 250-pound fish that have very little chance of passing the standard. But the FDA will not scrutinize the vendor again for a year, because the vendor has already been cleared as an importer.
BPGL: Could the FDA benefit from your technology?
WITTENBERG: I don’t know the budget the government has for imported fish testing. But I am aware that the FDA intercepts fish at main ports of entry — usually Miami or Los Angeles — and sends fish from the batch to a lab. So their budget must be somewhat significant.
About a year ago, I met with the head of the FDA in Maryland and offered to put our machinery at ports without any financial impact on the process. I was told they are not interested.
I was informed that the FDA is not a testing organization; they are more interested in messaging. Their focus is to warn consumers, particularly those in high-risk categories, such as pregnant women or young children, to stay away from certain species of fish. That’s where they draw the line.
I told them I didn’t think that our process would interfere with that. They could still message the same way, and do more testing for basically the same budget. But they did not want to get involved with us.
BPGL: How do you think the FDA’s lack of interest affects the quality of fish found in stores?
WITTENBERG: Consumers may be misled to think that products on store shelves meet FDA standards. While it is legal for fish to be sold that does not meet FDA standards, FDA’s 1.0 ppm limit is set so that the FDA can take action if it wishes to do so by pulling fish from the shelf, but that’s never done. In fact, we have conducted random tests on store-bought swordfish and have found the mercury level as high as 5 parts per million. That’s five times the FDA action level. We told them this, but nothing is being done about it.
For example, in northern California, we bought swordfish at a number of high-profile retail outlets. We bought the swordfish three times a week. We tested swordfish over time. We found that 4 out of 5, or 80% of swordfish tested were over the 1.00 ppm action level of the FDA. FDA data cites the mean mercury concentration level of swordfish at 0.97 ppm. The mean we measured over our random purchasing was 1.63 ppm.
BPGL: What are the dangers for consumers eating fish high in mercury?
WITTENBERG: I’m not a doctor, but I have read a lot on the subject. The best book I read recently is Diagnosis: Mercury. Jane Hightower, a physician at Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, writes about her experiences with patients who suffer from an excess of mercury. She describes some of the symptoms as including: loss of dexterity, loss of memory, fatigue and, sometimes, hair loss.
A huge issue is the unborn. A woman with an elevated mercury level is likely to have a baby born with an IQ 7 – 10 points lower than it otherwise would have had. That’s fairly significant.
BPGL: With what you just said, why would anyone eat fish?
WITTENBERG: Fish is great for you. There’s no question about that. It’s low in fat, high in omega 3s, and a great source of protein. Every physician I know of will tell a pregnant woman to eat fish, but in moderation, and to avoid certain species. It is not wise to eat swordfish or sushi while pregnant, but salmon and shellfish are fine.
The problem is, there are high and low mercury levels within each species and within each catch. But I would say, if someone is going to eat salmon a couple times a week, they’ll probably be okay. The mercury level in salmon is small compared to shark, swordfish, halibut, and tuna; and as long as the fish are smaller, they will be generally okay.
However, we have found examples of high mercury in fish that we were surprised to see. We discovered Atlantic salmon, which is farmed, at six times the FDA-published mercury level maximum.
BPGL: How is it possible for mercury to be in farmed salmon?
WITTENBERG: The waters in the Atlantic are very high in mercury. If you read the statistics, one in five women on the eastern seaboard — particularly in New England — has elevated mercury levels. We think this is because the power plants located in the Midwest and East burn coal to generate power. When the coal is burned, it causes mercury to be spewed into the atmosphere. It is then moved along through the jet stream, which is a westerly wind. By the time the jet steam hits the East Coast; the mercury will be in rain and accumulate in waters along the Georgia Banks, Eastern Canada and along the United States.
We find that fish in the Atlantic have more mercury, in general, than the fish in the Pacific. We tried to establish a swordfish testing facility in the Boston area. But at our certification level of 0.8 ppm, we found only two or three percent of the fish we tested could pass our standard.
BPGL: What about fish raised inside a controlled space? Is it possible to create a safe fish?
WITTENBERG: Farmed fish, such as tilapia, are low in mercury. If you were to advise someone to eat a safe fish, tilapia would be a good choice. A problem with tilapia is that it doesn’t have the omega 3s that many other fish offer.
But finding a low mercury fish may be getting harder. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimated that there are 12 million acre feet of lakes, waters, and estuaries that are polluted with mercury. That’s about 30% of the waters in the US. We’re not just talking about ocean fish, but also sporting fishing. It’s getting worse, because Asia at one time was an agricultural area, but now it’s industrialized. China and India produce a lot of electricity by burning coal.
BPGL: Do you think this going to kill the fish industry?
WITTENBERG: I don’t think so. Overfishing and failing to engage in sustainable practices are more likely to kill the fishing industry. It depends on consumption level. There is always going to be a demand for fish. Our job is to actually promote fish consumption. We are trying to build consumer confidence; get those who may have strayed away from the fish counter because of the mercury issue to return. We want them to start eating fish again, as we come up with a solution to their problem.
BPGL: Where are Safe Harbor fish being sold?
WITTENBERG: We have retailers located in the US and Italy, and we just began to sell our product in Canada. In the US, we sell to Haggan Markets and Tops Foods, a Seattle-based grocery store chain. And in the greater Bay Area, we sell to independent grocery stores DeLano’s IGA Market, Andronico’s Market, and Woodlands Market. We’re being used by a couple of major chains, but can’t disclose which ones just yet. Several additional chains have shown interest, so we’re making good headway there.
We are also making progress on getting restaurants to adopt our program. The Fish Market’s Northern California restaurants and retail counters have started to use Safe Harbor-tagged products in addition to some other high-end restaurants in California we can’t mention yet. Guests dining at these restaurants will see an asterisk on the menu to indicate that the product was tested and certified.
BPGL: What is sparking this increase in demand?
WITTENBERG: Customer demand clearly drives this program. Unless consumers demand that their fish be tested for mercury, it’s not going to happen. The retailer is not going to do it of their own volition. A major problem we encounter, as we offer our program, is that many retailers do not hear from the public that this is an issue they are concerned about. We believe this is because there has been no solution to the problem until now; people had no incentive to complain about the issue.
An operator in a Miami plant told me a story that is a perfect example of this. His daughter refused to eat fish throughout her three pregnancies, because she was scared about the mercury issue. I’m sure this woman never went to her retailer and said, “I wish you could do something about mercury.” Knowing the man behind the counter couldn’t fix the problem, she simply avoided eating seafood.
If retailers aren’t told of their customer concerns, they won’t adopt mercury testing. It’s a customer-pull situation. Our job is to get consumers to become aware that there is a solution to the problem of high mercury fish.