By Lela Nargi
It seems that everything we eat these days is tinged with peril. Processed food is making us fat and sick. GMOs and growth hormones with the potential to make us antibiotic-resistant have taken over the produce aisle and our milk supply. Meat—well, what isn’t wrong with meat? And what wild fish you can find has become contaminated with heavy metals, thanks to ongoing destruction, from various industrial quarters, of our oceans. If you’re pregnant or a child yourself, your options for healthful dining are even more limited.
But in Sausalito, CA, one surfer-turned-accidental-entrepreneur is working hard to put at least one beloved foodstuff back on our tables. Safe Catch tuna, distributed through a growing number of eco-conscious food outlets, is the only canned tuna on the market that guarantees that every fish it processes has been tested—three time—for mercury content, and is wholly sustainable to boot. After launching their product just this past year, the company has already received a coveted NEXTY award, which fetes products with strong social and environmental values, and become the official tuna of the American Pregnancy Association.
Really, though, it started out with less hands-on goals. “My wife and I have a big connection to the ocean,” says Bryan Boches, the company’s co-founder along with Sean Wittenberg. “We felt helpless watching the impact of the coal industry on coral reefs. We felt we had to do something.” Originally, he and Wittenberg developed a simple, inexpensive technology for testing seafood for mercury and shopped it around to Big Tuna. They thought they’d be heroes. Instead, they were told, “No one cares about mercury.”
Boches practically screams into the phone in exasperation as he recalls this response. “No one cares?” he huffs. Since 2004, "the per capita consumption of tuna has declined by 30 percent. Not just because pregnant women are being told by their doctors not to eat it. But they’re not going to buy that product for their kids, either.” Clearly, someone—a lot of someones—care about mercury. In the end, the only way Boches and Wittenberg could think to get their technology out into the world was to bring it there themselves.
“Like any entrepreneur in San Francisco, we did this with zero experience,” Boches says as he talks about going into canned tuna production—overseeing boat fleets and factories and all. And yet, despite their perceived ineptitude, Safe Catch tuna, priced at about $3.50 a can, has already taken off; it's on its way to about 1500 chain stores near you. “We’ve done it all on our own with no brokers, no help,” says Boches. “Now we’re getting some attention and we’re thinking: yeah, people want this. The industry doesn't want to change. The government doesn't want to change. But when you provide an alternative to the consumer, everybody changes.” Along the way, “We get to educate people about the quality of our oceans. It’s equally important to us that people become aware that EPA policies about water actually matter.”
The Safe Catch technology itself, a proprietary product that Boches cannot thoroughly disclose, is a hand tool that allows sample results to be read in seconds rather than days. These samples are taken from every fish in Safe Catch’s production facility. They’re taken again as cans come off the line. Then they’re taken yet again by a third-party lab. These rigors are necessary, according to Boches, to ensure that absolutely no mercury has breached a can. He also points out that samples from two fish in the same school can come back with highly varied levels of mercury. Bucking conventional wisdom about large fish carrying the highest levels of mercury, Boches says, “You can get large tuna that test low, and small tuna that test high. You cannot ensure pregnant women the fish are safe unless you test every single one.”
You also can’t have testing procedures so expensive that a can of tuna will cost $40. Or that an untrained factory worker can’t figure out how to manipulate it, in unfavorable conditions. “It’s got to be mobile, it has to stand up to environmental changes, vibrations, extremes of weather, getting sprayed with fishy water. In short, it has to work in an industrial environment,” says Boches. With 700,000 fish already tested to date—more than the FDA tests in a year—it’s pretty clear the thing works.
Boches wife, Joanna, by day a hotel executive, is as emotionally invested in the company as her husband and his business partner—especially now that she’s a mom (she and Bryan have a 18-month-old son, Dylan, whose photo turns up in Safe Catch publicity materials). “Joanna spent a lot of time in Maui on dive boats in the coral reefs, and even now, up here, we’re seeing all these weird things happening in the ocean: big schools of sharks up and down San Luis Obispo which are migrating here as the feedstock migrates; and all the plastic that’s killing the reefs. For our family,” says Boches, “there’s nothing bigger for us than the health of the ocean. I figure, we’ve got a decade to fix it.”
But how much can one brand, of one product, actually influence the future of edible fish, let alone the health of our oceans? “We can solve a lot more than tuna,” says Boches, starting to talk fast with excitement. “Our technology applies to PCBs and antibiotics in farmed salmon, to shrimp and fresh tuna. We think purity is going to be the biggest trend in this generation. And us? We’re the distruptor.”
Photographs courtesy of Bryan Boches