For many years, consumers' chief concern over the food supply was nutritional value. Calories ... saturated fat ... artificial coloring ... sugar. But lately, their primary concern has shifted to food safety. According to IBM Research in 2009, 60% of today's consumers are concerned about the safety of the foods they eat. Less than 20% trust food companies to produce and sell safe foods.
From peanut butter to beef and from listeria to E. coli and melamine in milk products from China, it seems as though consumers are inundated with news on one "food scare" after another. It's true, they are. A 2010 study by Deloitte & Touche indicates that the number of food safety news reports has grown five-fold in the last five years. Five fold!! No wonder consumers are feeling a little anxious.
Governments are attempting to address the situation: the same IBM Research found that in 2009 U.S. state legislatures introduced over 600 bills addressing food safety alone. But the really good news is that new science and services are coming together to enable consumers to buy with confidence both at their grocer, and in their favorite restaurant.
One example is in is seafood. Consumers' concern over seafood is centered on mercury contamination. This concern has caused many consumers to abandon seafood. Rather than risk consuming a small amount of mercury (albeit an extremely toxic substance) they have moved to poultry, beef, pasta and other substitutes.
Problem is, despite the low risk of mercury contamination, seafood is one of the healthiest foods on the planet. It's rich in essential omega oils and vitamins. And the American Heart Association recommends seafood as an integral part of a healthy lifestyle and diet.
The science on mercury consumption is clear, at least for some groups of consumers. Mercury is a toxin, one of the most potent toxins known to man. Because of that, even small amounts ingested can be dangerous. The EPA recommends that pregnant women and children under the age of six dramatically limit, if not avoid, consumption of seafood. But for healthy adults, the situation is less clear. Although mercury consumption should be avoided, it shouldn't necessarily be avoided at all cost.
As humans, we tend to be risk averse. We tend to value potential losses (mercury contamination) more dearly than potential gains (healthy heart). Caution is compounded by high-profile news such as Jeremy Piven's mercury poisoning, and speculation about the effects of the tragic oil spill in the Gulf. As such, many consumers will forgo the known benefits associated with seafood consumption because of the potential risk of excessive mercury ingestion.
This uncertainty can be eliminated by precisely and efficiently testing the mercury content of individual fish, and certifying for the seller and the consumer only seafood that meets or exceeds well-defined, acceptable standards. Once the risk of excessive mercury is eliminated, the benefits remain and consumers can consume seafood with confidence.
Safe Harbor is restoring confidence in seafood in precisely this way. Through a simple, reliable and inexpensive process, Safe Harbor tests and certifies the mercury content in seafood and can be used to ensure standards far higher than those of the FDA or EPA. At the food counter and on the menu, the Safe Harbor Certification label is the customers' sign of confidence.
We hope the developers of other promising technologies for restoring consumer confidence in essential foods will be encouraged by the response to Safe Harbor by consumers, restaurateurs and retailers alike.
"Consumers and guests are educated, and their confidence in seafood is undermined by so much of what they read and hear," Chef Geno Bernardo of Las Vegas hotspot Nove Italiano told me recently. "The Safe Harbor Certification helps restore confidence in seafood, which is good for everybody."