09/09/2010 03:53 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today's Consumers -- Perception Is Reality

According to a recent Deloitte survey, consumers today are more concerned about the safety of the food they eat at home and at dining establishments -- in fact, an overwhelming 65 percent of Deloitte's respondents said they're more concerned than they were five years ago about the food they eat. 34 percent rated themselves as highly concerned about the quality and safety of foods they eat at home. Even more, 44 percent, felt that way about the food they eat elsewhere.

Food safety is not a new topic for fish harvesters, processors, distributors and retailers, however due to increased consumer awareness of potential safety issues (as outlined by the Deloitte survey) it is an issue that demands more attention. According to a survey released last November, topping consumers' list of concerns is the problem of mercury in fish. More recently, when asked about the most important issue when deciding what fresh seafood items to purchase from the supermarket, consumers unanimously responded that food safety ranked first.

So what do these survey results say about today's consumers? Vice chairman and U.S. consumer-products practice leader at Deloitte, Pat Conroy, thinks mainstream consumers have a more refined understanding of the food safety issues they face. He adds, "what matters at the end of the day is what the consumer believes," characterizing the situation as one of those in which "perception is reality."

And without a doubt consumers' perceptions are justified -- concerns over seafood safety and mercury in fish are certainly not unwarranted. As recently as the 15th of August, the FDA re-issued an import alert for mercury in swordfish, and a few months earlier in February, an import alert for mercury in tuna and shark was also issued. Even more alarming, just recently in July 2010, a Safe Harbor technician in Seattle, WA tested an incoming shipment containing six blue marlins. Two of the fish registered at the highest levels ever recorded in Safe Harbor history -- 9.2 parts per million mercury (ppm) and 7.4 ppm respectively while a third tested at 3.5 ppm. The three remaining blue marlin tested under .5 ppm -- less than half the FDA's acceptable threshold (1.0 ppm) for fish.

So to be clear: in the same load, originating from the same harvest area (Hawaii to be exact) were fish with such elevated mercury levels that a single 8 oz. portion of the fish at 9.2 ppm would exceed the EPA's recommended dose for a 45-lb child by 145 times, and over 50 times the recommended dose for a 130-lb woman of child-bearing age, sitting right next to (and indistinguishable from) fish containing less than half the FDA threshold at .5 ppm! Therein lies the insidious nature of this problem -- there is absolutely no way to know how much mercury is in any piece of fish unless it is tested.

When asked about what mercury exposure at this level can mean for a small (45-lb) child, board certified internal medical physician (and an expert on mercury's effects on the body) Dr. Jane Hightower articulates:

It depends on that particular child's tolerance level. No one has been able to discern one single reason why one individual is more resistant or susceptible to mercury than another. There are multiple factors, from absorption, excretion, glutathione pathways, metallothionine 3 pathways, Apo E 4 genetics, autoimmune susceptibility, concomitant antioxidants that may be protective, etc. But the fact remains that some children exposed to that high of mercury could suffer permanent damage to their developing brain, which is non-reversible. Mercury stops cells from dividing, amongst many other things that can adversely affect one's health.

So what's the takeaway from this? Quite simply, food safety is an issue that is very important to consumers (with mercury in seafood topping that list) and they are more educated than ever on the topic. With consumer confidence already on the decline, it is crucial that retailers and restaurateurs act pro-actively to help rebuild consumer confidence. Retailers like Top Food/Haggen Markets in the Pacific Northwest and Glaziers Markets in Las Vegas lead the retail industry in seafood safety and test all their seafood to ensure mercury concentrations are lower than FDA standards. Likewise, leading the food service industry in seafood safety are numerous upscale restaurants in the Las Vegas area. We challenge the rest of the retail and food service industries to follow suit to ensure the seafood they buy, sell, and prepare is tested and mercury concentrations known so consumer confidence can be restored.