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Safe Harbor
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How meaningful is the label? Is the label verified? Is the meaning of the label consistent? Are the label standards publicly available? Is information about the organization publicly available? Is the organization free from conflict of interest? Was the label developed with broad public and industry input?
Somewhat meaningful Yes1 No2 No3 No No4 No
1. MASI verifies that the standard is met.
2. It is consistent in that it is based on the median level for that species of fish, but it is not consistent between different species of fish.
3. The FDA median levels are made available on the Safe Harbor Web site. However, in some cases, there is no FDA median level. In such cases, MASI will look to other sources for a median level, but this may be publicly available.
4. The organization behind the label is a private company, MASI, which only gets paid when fish pass the standards. It is involved in testing the fish.
Low contaminant levels

  • FISH
    The Safe Harbor program tests and certifies fish that do not exceed specific levels of mercury contamination. Specifically, maximum content for each species will not exceed either .1ppm (salmon, catfish, tilapia, etc, 90% below the 1.0ppm FDA level), .5ppm (halibut, cod, tuna, etc, 50% below the 1.0ppm FDA level), or at the highest ceiling for the species that bioaccumulate the highest mercury content, .8ppm (shark, swordfish, blue marlin, etc, 20% below the FDA level). For fish known to have higher levels of mercury, they certify only those that fall below the median level reported by the government. (The median is the middle number in a sequence of numbers, or the average of the two middle numbers when the sequence has an even number of numbers.) Rate of rejection varies widely by species, with some species of fish rejected at rates much higher than 40 percent, and certified at rates much higher than 60 percent.
    Fish grouped into three tiers:
    1) Fish generally known to contain the lowest concentration of mercury (salmon, tilapia, catfish, etc) – certify at .1ppm (90% below the FDA 1.0ppm "action level")
    2) Fish generally known to contain medium concentrations of mercury (halibut, cod, snapper, etc) – certify at .5ppm (50% below the FDA 1.0ppm "action level")
    3) Fish generally known to contain the highest concentrations of mercury (shark, swordfish, marlin, etc) – certify at .8ppm (20% below the FDA 1.0ppm "action level")

    Micro Analytical Systems, Inc. (MASI) developed the system and does the testing. MASI tests the fish at processing facilities before it is delivered to retailers and restaurants. Many large fish and those species known to be higher in mercury content are individually tested. Many small fish, or batches of fillets, and those species known to be lower in mercury, are batch-tested using a statistical sampling model.

    The testing takes about a minute and uses a needle to obtain a small sample of the fish. A sample of the fish is injected into an automated device that weighs it and analyzes the total mercury content using a proprietary method. The operator is given a green or red light depending on whether the sample passes the standard or not. To ensure that the device gets accurate results, control standards provided by the National Institute of Standards Technology with a known level of mercury is periodically run through the testing device. The fish that pass the test are segregated and numbered so they can be tracked.

    The group also tests for histamine growth/contamination in scombroid species of fish; E. Coli & Salmonella in crustaceans, shellfish and certain farmed species and radiation – Iodine 131, Cesium 134, Cesium 137 - in all fish originating from or around Japanese waters in addition to highly migratory species/HMS fish.

    Species verification is not addressed through DNA testing. However, there are visual checks and paper audit from the time the group receives the samples from company.

    Understanding Mercury
    Mercury contamination is particularly of concern to children and pregnant or nursing women (since the fetus is especially vulnerable), but all people can be affected by mercury. Mercury is toxic to the nervous system, especially when the nervous system is still under development.

    The EPA and the FDA advise women who may become pregnant, pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid fish with high levels of mercury (shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tile fish) and to eat up to 12 ounces a week of a variety of fish lower in mercury (e.g., shrimp, canned salmon, pollock, catfish). Although light tuna is on FDA’s low-mercury list, the Chicago Tribune recently found that light tuna were not low in mercury, a result later confirmed by the FDA. We recommend that pregnant women avoid canned tuna entirely.

    The EPA and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommend that adults consume no more than 1 microgram of mercury for every 22 pounds of bodyweight per day—an amount easily exceeded. Not even 1 serving a week of fish containing the FDA limit on mercury would be safe, according to that advice.
    How meaningful is the label?
    The Safe Harbor claim is somewhat meaningful. The standards are defined, somewhat transparent (in most cases they are based on FDA median levels, which are publicly available), and are verified, although the test method used is proprietary and not publicly available for independent verification. There is a conflict of interest, however, since the company that has developed the test method is paid only for fish that pass the standard, and since they are involved in conducting or at least managing the testing of the fish. Also, the testing method has not been independently validated and is a trade secret.

    Does an organization verify that the label standards are met?
    Yes. However, there is a conflict of interest since the responsibility is split between the company that is selling the seafood to retailers, and the manufacturer of the test method.

    Is the meaning of the label consistent?
    No. The standard is not the same for different species of fish, since it is based on the median level found in fish, which vary by species. Therefore, one particular fish that has the Safe Harbor label may have a higher level of mercury than a different species of fish that does not have the label. In addition, the median level may not be used for fish that typically have low levels of mercury.

    Are the label standards publicly available?
    Some of the standards are based on FDA test results, which are publicly available. However, in cases where no FDA result is available, the standard is not publicly available.

    Is information about the standard organization publicly available?
    No, only to a limited extent. We were unable to obtain a list of the board of directors. There is some information available on the website.

    Is the organization behind the label free from conflict of public interest?
    No. The organization that developed the label is only paid when fish meet the Safe Harbor standard.

    Was the label developed with broad public and industry input?
    No. A private company developed the label.
    Safe Harbor
    Micro Analytical Systems, Inc. (MASI)
    Safe Harbor is a private company founded in 2002. The CEO, a patent lawyer, had the idea for the program.

    Investors fund the company and the program.

    Private company
    Safe Harbor Standards
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