. . . And Now a Word From the ‘Sturgeon General’ on Seafood Benefits

Times Staff Writer

The seafood industry will launch a $6.5-million advertising campaign next month urging Americans to eat fishery products twice a week.

Scheduled to appear on television and in magazines, the ads feature a cartoon character named the Sturgeon General, an officious looking, mustachioed fish.

The program, sponsored by the National Fish and Seafood Promotional Council, is to extend through September, 1990. Details of the promotion will be formally announced next week in meetings with seafood retailers and wholesalers in Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and other cities.

The group selected a “spokesfish” as its symbol to lend humor to the pitch and in an effort to appeal to children. Privately, the council hopes the Sturgeon General becomes as popular with the public as the California Raisins, according to Seafood Leader, an industry trade magazine.

The campaign is targeting those who are already “positively disposed to eating fish,” the magazine reports, rather than attempting the more difficult task of persuading meat eaters to switch to fishery products. As a result, the advertisements will be run in those parts of the country with the most significant seafood sales such as the Pacific Coast, Mid-Atlantic and New England regions.


The ads are timely and debut on the heels of the first decline in the nation’s per capita seafood consumption in five years. In 1988, Americans ate 15 pounds of fish and shellfish products, down from the previous year’s record total of 15.4 pounds.

Industry observers believe the drop can be blamed, in part, on the public’s concerns over the safety of fish and shellfish. Much has been made of the fact that there is no continuous federal inspection program for the seafood industry. The oversight that does exist is either infrequent or voluntary. Generally higher prices also played a role in the decline in consumption.

In promoting seafood generically, the industry joins its counterparts in the pork and beef sectors who have had some success with slogans such as “Pork: The Other White Meat” and “Beef: Real Food for Real People.”

The Sturgeon General’s official motto, however, is the more commanding: “Eat Fish and Seafood Twice a Week.”

At next week’s meetings to announce the advertising campaign, officials from the National Fisheries Institute will also reveal plans for a two-year program to address the public’s concerns about seafood safety. Representatives will disclose the Washington-based institute’s efforts to expand significantly the federal government’s fish and shellfish inspection system through legislation.

Marketing Safety--Not waiting for the seafood industry to reassure consumers, several Southern California supermarket chains have taken the lead in prominently advertising that many of their fish and shellfish items are federally inspected under the U.S. Department of Commerce’s voluntary oversight program.

For several weeks, advertisements for the Vons Co. stores’ have stated that its fish are federally inspected. And each item’s listing is also preceded by an authoritative USDC acronym as in “USDC Fresh Salmon.” The affiliation with the Commerce Department is also displayed at the stores’ seafood counters.

In a recent Vons’ ad that featured seafood, the supermarket chain stated that its customers “can be confident that our seafood complies with the USDC’s rigid requirements for freshness and quality at the time of inspection.”

Lucky Discount Stores and Ralphs Grocery Co. also use similarly prominent words in their newspaper advertisements.

The retailers will receive additional encouragement for such efforts when a new joint program between the federal government and a supermarket industry group begins.

Last month, the U.S. Commerce Department and the Food Marketing Institute, a grocers trade association, announced an awards program for those food chains that demonstrate excellence in seafood retailing.

Chains with seafood departments that meet strict standards for sanitation and product integrity will receive a “Standard of Excellence” award. The designation can then be used as part of the seafood display or in advertisements.

The program is designed, however, to reassure consumers as much as reward retailers, according to the plan’s announcement.

FMI has reason enough to institute seafood promotional efforts. A recent public opinion survey, commissioned by the group, found that 15% of those queried said they avoid buying fish because they feel it may be “unsafe.”

Gulf Oyster Warning--The problems confronting the seafood industry and its allies in the grocery business and government are demonstrated by a report issued by local health officials.

The Public Health Letter, published by Los Angeles County’s Department of Health Services, issued a recent warning that certain high-risk individuals should not consume raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico.

For much of the year, the shellfish are believed to harbor Vibrio vulnificus, a harmful bacteria. As much as 40% of the Gulf oysters harvested in the warm weather months are believed to carry the potentially fatal pathogen.

The infection, though rare, can be severe causing septicemia or blood poisoning. Symptoms include fever, chills, skin lesions, nausea and vomiting.

Among those considered vulnerable to V. vulnificus are people suffering from liver disease and cancer. Individuals with compromised immune systems, such as AIDS patients, infants, the elderly and pregnant women, should also avoid undercooked or raw Gulf oysters.

The warning was issued after two deaths in Los Angeles County were attributed to V. vulnificus in 1988. The first case was a 50-year-old woman who had cancer and liver disease. The patient had eaten raw oysters twice within a week of becoming ill, according to the Public Health Letter.

The second case was a 34-year-old male with a history of cirrhosis. The man routinely ate raw oysters, although there was no reported consumption in the week immediately preceding his death.

“Since V. vulnificus infection can be life-threatening, it is prudent to recommend that individuals with liver disease avoid eating raw or undercooked shellfish, particularly oysters and clams,” the Public Health Letter reported.

Federal health officials, as well as the National Fisheries Institute, recommend fully cooking shellfish as a means of protecting against any harmful organisms that may be present.