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When the mercury rises

Bio-engineered vegetables. Mad cow disease. E-coli outbreaks. Anthony Bourdain uncovering the dirty little secrets of restaurant kitchens. Atkins vs. The Zone. Seafood: health benefit or danger?

Seems like there is always something in the news related to food health and safety. While most of the stories cover legitimate concerns, they sometimes present only a partial picture that leaves the public with more doubts than useful information. Since we're in the foodservice business, this can present a problem.

Let's look at the issue of mercury levels in seafood, a hot topic when I owned and operated a seafood restaurant on the California coast, and in the news again today. The FDA says fish are an important source of protein and part of a healthful diet. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that fish is a leading source of mercury in people, and that too much exposure to mercury can permanently damage the brain and kidneys, and be hazardous to pregnant women and children.

This incomplete picture can cause some people to avoid eating seafood altogether... not good if you offer fresh seafood on your menu. Luckily, there is more to the story. While some types of fish contain high levels of harmful mercury, there are many fish that are relatively low in mercury and offer nutritional benefits. The trick is having information so that you can allay the concerns of your customers.

All it takes is a heads up to keep on top of the issues and be prepared to answer questions should they arise. You can also take it one step further, as we did in my restaurant. We created a small flyer that outlined the basic facts about mercury levels in seafood and gave a copy to anyone who brought up the issue. We were then able to recommend specific seafood items on our menu that were low in mercury.

Our customers felt reassured that their meal was safe. Our staff felt confident to answer questions. We were even able to use it as a PR story, giving the local paper an interview and facts to share with the community.

We included a sample of the informational flyer we created to show you how simple it is share the facts, and promote good eating. So if an issue arises that relates to your style of operation, be prepared to stay cool under the pressure of public opinion.

Caveat: Present a variety a information from legitimate sources. And make sure you present it as third party information... not your own opinions.

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