By David Templeton
The seas are dying, or so suggest a certain number of activists, scientists and watchers-of-the-apocalypse. Some of them point to rising levels of toxins in the ocean, and an array of environmental imbalances that have put whole species of aquatic life at risk of extinction. Others quote that scary part of Revelation (Chapter 8: Verse 9) that predicts one-third of the fish in the ocean will die, along with, by the way, one-third of its ships. In the midst of all this aquatic doom-and-gloom, a small company headquartered in Sausalito is offering a much more optimistic view of the future’s oceans, along with a strong call to change our relationship with the sea, and the tasty creatures that live in it.
“I’m not sure it’s accurate to say the seas are dying, but they are definitely very seriously challenged,” says Sean Wittenberg, co-founder and president of Safe Catch, a fast-rising, ecologically minded and slightly quirky company producing canned and cooked tuna that is as healthy for its consumer as it is respectful of the oceans in which those fish are caught. “Certain parts of the ocean are more challenged than others, because of the impact of industrial pollution, and because of reckless human behavior. Industrial behavior, and consumer behavior, is definitely threatening the oceans, and all of that irresponsible behavior has caused the ocean a lot of serious harm. [The ocean] is sick, in places, and it certainly does need help.”
Wittenberg and his Safe Catch co-founder, Bryan Boches, are fully aware of the ironies and challenges of launching an environmentally friendly canned tuna company. Still, both founders see the sustainable harvesting of fish as an important effort that—assuming certain changes are implemented into the industry, and into consumer attitudes—brings a number of powerful pluses to counter its many minuses. It all comes down to the fact that healthy fish is healthy protein.
“The healthiest things on earth to put in your body still come from the ocean,” Wittenberg says. “There are plenty of healthy fish in the sea. You just have to be willing to pass on those that aren’t.”
And, of course, the healthier the oceans become, the safer the food we pull from it. Currently, Safe Catch produces a whole line of high-end, ecologically minded, health-conscious tuna products, packed in attractive cans and pouches bearing the lofty admonition, “Eat Pure. Live Pure,” and the remarkably specific promise that it’s a great choice for athletes, kids and pregnant women.
Each can—which is produced to sit on shelves upside-down, it’s removable cover on the bottom—carries a lot of printed information in the form of short statements, positive affirmations and little icons identifying that the tuna inside was caught using dolphin-safe methods, with traditional lines and poles, was hand-cut, sushi-grade fish when it was placed in the can and cooked in its own juices, and before any of that, was tested to the highest level of any canned tuna brand on the market.
“We’ve performed a million mercury tests to date,” Wittenberg says. “And that’s just the beginning.”
There was a time, of course, when tuna was among Americans’ favorite foods. But when reports of mercury levels in canned tuna became common, and doctors warned of mercury’s dangers—especially to pregnant women—American consumption of tuna plummeted.
According to Wittenberg, Safe Catch is the only brand of tuna that tests the mercury level of each and every fish before buying it, cooking it and canning it. Most companies only test one or two fish out of a larger batch. This is not effective, because two fish of the same size, caught at the same time, could have wildly varying levels of mercury.
As Wittenberg explains it, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set a mercury limit in fish of 1.0 parts per million. In other words, mercury is perfectly safe as long as it’s consumed at that level or lower—according to the government. But that’s not good enough for Wittenberg and Boches.
Safe Catch has set its own, far stricter mercury limits, which the company claims are between three and 10 times stricter than the government’s, depending on the type of fish and the specific product. Safe Catch’s Wild Albacore Tuna, for example, is held to a safety standard of .3 ppm (three times stricter), while its Safe Catch Elite Wild Tuna must meet a standard of .1 ppm (10 times stricter that the FDA).
Using those standards, the company rejects an average of one out of every three tuna it tests—leaving one to ponder the question, what happens to those other fish?
“They end up in the marketplace, probably purchased by some other company,” Wittenberg says. “If they’ve made it as far as testing, we know they’re basically good fish. They’re just not good enough for us.”
So, how exactly, in a world where video games and computers lead so many kids into careers involving programming and technology, do two young men from California grow up to become canned fish manufacturers?
The truth is, before Safe Catch was called Safe Catch, it was a technology company, one devoted to developing new forms of testing fish for mercury levels. The specific process they developed, Wittenberg says, is “a proprietary product,” details of which he cannot legally reveal in too much detail.
Apparently, it is some sort of portable testing device, with a highly exact system for screening mercury levels in seafood. More than a decade ago, Wittenberg and company set out to perfect the process, then began presenting this new technology to a number of existing seafood companies, offering to test and certify their catches in order to assure that only the highest quality of tuna made it to the public. At that point, Safe Catch was conceived as a testing company. But after a number of major big tuna companies passed, the team decided to take the knowledge they’d acquired over years of developing the system, and swim in a different direction.
In short, they decided that if no existing tuna manufacturers were willing to hold their products to a higher standard, they would start a healthy tuna brand of their own. Their goals were many-fold—to produce healthier tuna, to do it in a way that might restore populations of fish that are being unsustainably harvested by other companies, to set an example of how that could be done and, to a degree, to put tuna back into American consciousness as a healthful and relatively inexpensive staple.
“This actually all started,” Wittenberg says, “because my mom had mercury poisoning when I was a kid, and she became very sick. Before then, we ate a lot of tuna. Everyone ate a lot of tuna.”
He still recalls his mother sending him to school every morning with a paper bag lunch.
“There was always an apple or some other piece of fruit, a juice box, something sweet once in awhile, and a sandwich,” he says. “And two days a week, that sandwich was tuna fish. Then my mom got sick. Then she read an article in Prevention magazine, talking about how pregnant women and children were at risk of mercury poisoning, and that so much of our tuna had become contaminated, we simply can’t trust any of it anymore.
“I remember my mom saying, ‘Well Sean, you just lost 40 percent of your lunches,’” he continues. “She never made tuna sandwiches again.
“I didn’t know it would become my whole world,” Wittenberg says. “When we started developing the testing technology, I thought we would, you know, help the world, and then go on to the next problem. But it turned into much more than that for me. When we brought this technology to the seafood industry, in the interest of helping people get access to healthy seafood, we thought we had a sure thing. Why wouldn’t these companies want to produce safer products? But the folks we talked to in the industry wanted us to dilute our standards, and basically just use the testing technologies to rubber stamp their products.”
During their time developing his company’s testing tools, Wittenberg says he and Boches worked with fisherman in Honolulu, Chile, the Philippines and throughout the U.S. and Canada. “We established some very good relationships, gained some knowledge of the seafood supply chain,” Wittenberg says. “So, in 2013, when we decided to transform ourselves from a testing company into a product company, we had a pretty good idea who we wanted to work with, and how the industry functioned.”
Throughout 2015 and 2016, they worked out the details of how their fish would be acquired and tested, placed into cold storage, and shipped to Thailand, where the cooking and canning is done on manufacturing lines reserved solely for Safe Catch products.
“It was a pretty steep learning curve,” he acknowledges. “But we threw ourselves out there and learned how to do it. It was tough, but we’re pleased with where we’ve arrived.”
Since launching the products, the co-founders have managed to get them onto shelves at thousands of stores, from health food chains to larger grocery chains.
“When you are doing as much as we are, and you are as poor as we are, you have to communicate about your product in any and every way you can,” Wittenberg says. “The best way to do that is on the grocery store shelves.
“We just have a lot to say, a lot of information we want to get out there, so we say it on our labels. And by turning the can upside-down, we can put a label on the top, and use it to say more stuff. That’s the reason for the upside-down can.”
And perhaps, metaphorically, it’s also a symbol of Safe Catch’s desire to turn the industry upside-down as well?
“That’d be nice, but it’s going to take more than one company in California,” Wittenberg says. “But we’ve enjoyed some success, definitely. And the industry is watching. So who knows? The product is catching on, so to speak, with health and wellness customers. We might be able to bring confidence back to the shelves, and put more tuna back in kids’ lunch bags.
“Maybe other companies will start following our lead,” he concludes. “Why not? I think about this sometimes, but if there had been better testing back when I was a kid, and companies more dedicated to the health of their customers than making a product, my mom would have been fine. She’d never have gotten sick.
“And,” he says with a laugh, “I wouldn’t have lost two-fifths of my weekly sandwiches.”
Safe Catch, 85 Liberty Ship Way, Suite 203, Sausalito; 415/944-4442; safecatch.com.