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Marketing Forum: Honesty the best policy with mercury concerns

Pat Shanahan
Pat Shanahan
March 01, 2005

The seafood industry seems to get the good with the bad lately. In January, the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave a huge boost to seafood, at last acknowledging in its 2005 Food Dietary Guidelines that fish and shellfish should be an essential part of our diets. However, just one month later, court settlements in California now require restaurants to join retailers in warning consumers about the dangers of mercury in seafood.

The mercury issue has been brewing for a few years now, fueled by consumer groups and other organizations, some of whom are blowing the issue out of proportion to further their own agendas. So don’t count on its going away any time soon. Seafood suppliers, associations and industry groups should all have a coherent plan to respond to concerns about mercury.

It might seem easy to dismiss the issue by saying that the seafood you sell doesn’t have mercury in it. Not only is this probably not true, but that strategy actually erodes the category’s position by making the connection of mercury and seafood more powerful than it actually is. I believe that a more comprehensive, proactive approach is needed throughout the industry.

First, we should all do our part to get the word out about the health benefits of seafood and the new USDA food guidelines that recommend including seafood in the diet. We have a very positive story to tell, and consumers need to hear it. If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity, negative issues will overwhelm the good news.

When dealing with the mercury question, our first concern should be consumers, and this concern should be evident in all our communications. Expectant mothers, infants and small children are a very important group to all food producers. It is important that this group get accurate information about mercury, but it is just as important that these consumers be educated about how important seafood is for their health. The omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood are essential for healthy brain and retina development and should be part of pre- and postnatal diets. Remember, every question about mercury is an opportunity to put the issue in perspective and to educate consumers about the overwhelmingly positive health benefits of seafood.

We should be accurate when reporting the facts. Some seafood high in mercury, such as tuna, swordfish and tilefish, probably should be avoided by some groups who have special health concerns. However, the large majority of seafood is safe for the general population.

We should encourage the media to rely on the best science available from reliable sources like the Food and Drug Administration and the USDA Dietary Guidelines, both of which say that for most people, the risk from mercury presented by eating fish and seafood is not a health concern.

Finally, we need to follow the current research about mercury in seafood. Although there are concerns, new and conflicting information is continually coming in on the effects of mercury in seafood.

Some of the latest reports indicate that mercury levels in Americans are actually decreasing and that some populations who have higher levels of mercury consumption don’t experience the negative consequences that scientists predicted.

We’ll need to sort through this data and continue to take a reasoned approach to the mercury-in-seafood issue. It’s our product and our responsibility.

March 2012 - SeaFood Business


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