Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Trouble With Tuna;
Balancing Food Safety While Supporting Local Fishers

By Brian Rohter

Kudos to the Oregonian Food Day and reporter Leslie Cole for the great story in this mornings paper about the complexities involved in trying to eat healthy and sustainably fished or farmed seafood. We definitely agree with Leslie's bottom line, which is "Taking action is easier than you think. We've ... identified a handful of fish you can bring home without guilt or questions. They're healthful, environmentally sound choices . . . ". Here's the link to the whole story: "A good catch".

There are a couple of other pieces of information that I'd like to share. Leslie points out in the article that we recently had some of our fish tested for mercury content at a local independent laboratory. We did do a round of several tests. The results from the first test really shocked us because, although we were prepared to see elevated mercury counts on the tuna, we didn't expect the levels to be as high as they were. We were also really taken aback at the results for the salmon that we tested since we hadn't heard anything at all about mercury problems in wild Alaskan salmon. Read the Feb. 4 results here.

Based on the uncertainty of the results on the first round of testing, we contracted for a second sample. The tuna came back with essentially the same results and the salmon came back at the levels that we expected. We've been told there was an error in the first salmon sampling process. Read the Feb. 18 results here.

We thought long and hard about what action we should take after the high levels of mercury in the tuna were confirmed. Obviously we want to offer all of our customers as many choices as possible and we certainly are committed to promoting Oregon products, like the local albacore. In the end we decided to be cautious and stop selling those varieties for the time being. We will continue to test on a intermittent basis and if something changes we'll be excited to bring them back. I'm interested to know if you think we made the right decision here or whether we should just share the information and let everyone choose for themselves.

We also figured it would be a good idea to take a look at the mercury levels in the canned tuna that we sell and we were pleasantly surprised to see that all of it came back at levels that are deemed acceptable. Read the Feb. 28 results.

Finally, for folks who have a high degree of interest in making sustainable seafood purchases, I want to remind you of our Sustainable Seafood Program, which we launched in 2003. We use a simple green, yellow and red color coding system in our Seafood Departments to help highlight smarter choices for healthier oceans. You can learn more about it here or by picking up the informational brochures in each of our stores.


Tamara said...

Thank You! I did not realize there were such high levels of mercury in tuna!

R.T. Judge said...

DON’T pitch that tuna, give it to me! For years I sat in classrooms competing with students from China, Viet Nam, Korea, Japan, and the Phillipines. They typically ate fish every day, some ate so much it was detectable three desks away. Guess what, they usually aced every class and then went on to graduate school. Maybe the problem is we’re not getting enough mercury! I’ll be glad to pick it up anytime. Thank you! R.T.Judge 503-667-1063.

Bill Carvalho said...

Our company is responsive to consumers’ mercury concerns and has compliled over 200 mercury tests on Oregon caught albacore. The range of mercury content of these tests is 0.06 to 0.4 parts per million. We have never seen a test that exceeded 0.4 ppm. I STRONGLY suspect that the surprisingly high ppm tests results (0.7 and 0.9) are the result of improper labeling of the foreign fish as Oregon-caught. This particular fish most likely came from another fishery and should be carefully traced back to confirm its origin. There have been misrepresentations made in the seafood industry before (i.e. selling farmed salmon as wild, etc.) and I believe this is one of them.

Jeremy Brown said...

New Seasons and the consumer is being ’spun’ once again by sloppy journalism, or worse.
The KORN TV story showed tuna that was categorically NOT local albacore. The darkest local albacore gets is a light pink. No tuna has that ruby red color unless it has been treated with carbon monoxide- essentially adulterated to enhance its appearance.
Fortuneately this is a very rare practice in the US but has become quite acceptable for many imports.
Given that the test on the Alaska salmon were erroneous as well, one can’t help suspecting the lab was looking for work too!

Larz Malony said...

Dear New Seasoins - You are a wonderful store and I have had the pleasure of shopping at your stores. In this case, something is wrong. One explanation is that the Tuna that you purchsed from a vendor was mis-represented at Oregon Albacore. The fact is that there are Albacore populations in many different parts of our world. Each population has slightly different characteristics. We, along the Pacific Northwest coast are extremely fortunate because the Albacore Tuna that frequent our waters every year between July through October are a very special run of Albacore. “Our” Albacore are know internationally to be one of the highest oil content AND the lowest mercury content Albacore in the world. Because of these characteristics, the Albacore that we catch in our Pacific Northwest waters have gained high praise and respect from the most discerning markets in the world such as Japan, Spain, France and Italy. Over the past 30 years, I have exported over 70,000 mt of Albacore caught in our Pacific Northwesrt waters. We have tested a vast majority of these containers in certified laboratories for Mercury. I have never seen a Mercury content near .7 ppm. Actually .7ppm is very low. I randomly chose 16 lab tests from shipments that we made this season. They ranged from .13 - .22 ppm. This is very normal and is indicative of one of the reasons “our” Albacore is seen as superior in international markets that place high value in fish with high oil (Omega 3’s) and low mercury.

I am sorry to say that there are Albacore that are caught on the high seas far away from our Pacific Northwest waters. These fish are larger, have a low oil content and are prone to having a mercury level higher than our special fish. It is possible that, in order to get a better price, that New Seasons wsa sold high seas Albacore represented as Oregon Albacore.

I am sure that this inaccurate and mis-leading information was an accident. I sincerely hope that New Seasons can do their best to find out what happened and correct the information that went out AND start selling this wonderful Albacore Tuna again.

Katie said...

The results of your recent testing may seem startling, but they’re actually consistent with what others are finding. The New York Times and Oceana both recently conducted two separate tests with similar results. The New York Times’ study found that tuna from 5 out of 20 New York sushi restaurants and stores exceeded the FDA’s action level of 1 ppm. In Oceana’s new report, “Hold the Mercury,” we tested seafood from grocery stores around the country and found that the average mercury concentration for fresh tuna was 0.68 ppm, nearly twice as high as FDA data suggests and very similar to your findings. There’s no getting around the fact that tuna has higher mercury levels than many other fish.

Consumers can make responsible decisions about seafood if they are armed with information, but the question becomes how to ensure that people know the facts about mercury when they buy seafood. A simple and inexpensive solution would be to post a sign at your seafood counters with the Food and Drug Administration’s advice about mercury. Grocery companies like Safeway and Whole Foods are already posting this information while others (like Costco) are refusing to do so. As a conscientious grocer, I am sure you will agree that this inexpensive and straight-forward approach provides a win-win solution.


Dear Sir or Madam:

I was incredibly pleased to see that you were featuring West Coast Pacific troll (not trawl) caught albacore tuna in your stores. It is healthy protein, rich in omega-3 oils (which is recommended for everything from reducing your chances of a heart attack by 34% to warding off Alzheimers), and being locally caught has not been shipped long distances (which larger carbon footprint might contribute to global warming or climate change). I assume it is fresh or fresh flash frozen. Either way you are providing an excellent product for your customers.

I was, however, greatly disappointed that before you had your lab test results checked and verified by another lab, you chose to receive so much publicity about your unfathonable action of pulling such a healthy fish out of your fresh/frozen food cases. Fish that tested even lower (once you corrected the decimal point error) than the FDA action level, which itself has a ten fold safety feature built into it.

Have you read any of the research that has been done on the selenium content of ocean going fish such as tunas? It turns out that selenium binds with and neutralizes mercury. Fresh water fish genrally have little selenium, but may have high mercury content because of the location of the particular lake or river it is caught in (which is why several states have warnings out about locally caught fresh water fish).

The New York Times article referred to above has been shown to be grossly erroneous, even if one were to overlook the fact that it dealt with an entirely different and distinct species of tuna. Oceana’s goal is to stop all commercial fishing, so they are a little prejudiced in their reporting. The whole “mercury thing in tuna” was started by, among others, NRDC — you know the people who put many Oregon and Washington apple growers out of business a few years ago with the alar scare. NRDC and other similar groups are actually quite unhappy with the Bush administration’s stance on coal fired power plants which are thought to be a source for much of the man made mercury in the atmosphere. They hooked up with the sea turtle people because much of the large and older tuna (yellowfin, bigeye, and albacore) is caught by longline gear which can interact with sea turtles (the US long line fleet has taken many gear modification measures to avoid this concern). They have become very good at measuring the amount of mercury in all types of fish, but no one has shown that it has a harmful effect on adults in the trace quantities it is in most fish. The younger, smaller troll caught albacore has been consistently tested by universities to have very low mercury content. However, the real point is that no one in the history of the U.S. has ever been documented to have died from consuming mercury in fish. Thus, inquisitive real bona fide scientists started looking into the selenium-mercury connection mentioned above. If you want to know about troll caught Pacific west coast albacore I suggest you go to www.albatuna. Pete