andrew schneider investigates

April 21, 2008

New techniques to test fish for mercury

Fish lovers in the Pacific Northwest who have curtailed their consumption of seafood because of concerns over mercury contamination may now get help from science in loading their shopping cart. New technology is permitting some fish mongers to certify that their seafood have low levels of the toxic agent that is known to harm developing nervous system of the unborn and young children.

“Now we can tell markets with scientific confidence that what they’re buying from the processors and selling at their fish counters have been certified to contain low levels of mercury,” Michael Wittenberg, the CEO of Micro Analytical Systems Inc. told me.

The technology behind Wittenberg’s “Safe Harbor Foods” certification centers on the collection of a tiny sample of flesh from the fish being evaluated using a hollow biopsy needle. The sample of fish is then inserted into a sampling console attached to a computer.

“In a minute or less, the analysis is completed, the results printed out and the fish can be tagged certifying that it meets or exceeds government standards,” Wittenberg explained to me.
It’s this “Safe Harbor Certified Seafood” certification that Haggen, Inc. has introduced at its 33 TOP Food, Haggen and Larry’s supermarkets in Washington and Oregon.

“It was the right thing to do for our customers,” Russ Casteel, seafood buyer for the chain, explained to me today.

“For the last three years we have seen increasing concern among shoppers over mercury in seafood,” “Now, with this Safe Harbor certification, they will know that the seafood they’re getting from us has been tested to ensure that the mercury it contains is at or below government standards for safety.”

The testing is done at Haggen’s two seafood suppliers. All shipments from Alaska of salmon, cod, halibut, rockfish and Dover sole are tested in Seattle. Samples from each shipment of King crab, scallops and lobster tails imported through Los Angeles are tested at that location before shipped to the chain, Casteel said.

“Every swordfish, tuna or other species known to accumulate higher levels of mercury are tested individually,” he said. “Anything that exceeds government levels will be refused by our buyers.”

The cost of the testing, which Casteel said is minimal, is passed on to the consumer.
The system has been used for two to three years in groceries through California and Wittenberg says they are close to adding new capability that will detect and measure other dangerous heavy metals in seafood.

While mercury is naturally occurring, the largest source is clearly industrial pollution. It falls from the air and accumulates in streams and oceans where its contact with water converts it to methylmercury. The FDA says all fish and shellfish absorb some methylmercury as they feed so it builds up in them. In some species, like shark, swordfish, King Mackerel and tuna the levels can be alarmingly higher than most others.

FDA and other health advisory organizations have set standards for mercury levels but the consumer and the seller didn’t know what was in the seafood they were purchasing.

For more information on mercury in fish and Safe Harbor certification here are the links to FDA, EPA, and MASI.


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: