Safe Catch got its start by mak­ing tech­nol­ogy to de­tect tox­ins, but its prod­uct has since changed dramatical­ly

The Denver Post - - BUSINESS - By Jeff Ber­covici |

How a com­pany that got its start by de­tect­ing tox­ins changed into the maker of a bet­ter can of tuna.

T he tuna fish sand­wich has a bad odor th­ese days. A slow decline in sales of canned tuna be­came a free fall in 2004, the same year the FDA and EPA is­sued a joint rec­om­men­da­tion that chil­dren and preg­nant women limit tuna con­sump­tion be­cause of con­cerns over mer­cury lev­els. Per capita in­take of the fish has fallen by a third since then.

Bay Area fa­ther-son duo Mal­colm and Sean Wit­ten­berg were con­vinced that mer­cury was scar­ing con­sumers away from the kitchen sta­ple. So, in 2005, they and their part­ners de­vel­oped a tech­nol­ogy that, for the first time, al­lowed fish­er­men, pro­ces­sors and gro­cery stores to quickly and cheaply test ev­ery fish on­site for the toxic metal. They launched Mi­cro An­a­lyt­i­cal Sys­tems to mar­ket the testing ser­vices.

But MASI was a harder sell than they ex­pected. Seafood pro­ces­sors balked at the added cost. Tuna brands weren’t in­ter­ested. And en­force­ment of FDA mer­cury lim­its is min­i­mal. So “ev­ery­one does just enough testing to sat­isfy the [FDA] rules,” says Sean.

Even as the re­jec­tions rolled in, the Wit­ten­bergs and one of their part­ners, Bryan Boches, saw a con­flu­ence of health and so­cial trends trans­form­ing the su­per­mar­ket. If con­sumers would pay more for gluten-free bread or Greek yo­gurt, why not low-mer­cury tuna? High in pro­tein and ben­e­fi­cial fatty acids, “tuna is pretty much a su­per­food, out­side of the pu­rity is­sue,” says Boches, a for­mer in­vest­ment banker who wrote MASI’s orig­i­nal busi­ness plan.

So they piv­oted, with Sean and Boches buy­ing MASI’s as­sets and re­for­mu­lat­ing it as Safe Catch. (Mal­colm is not in­volved.) In Fe­bru­ary, they be­gan sell­ing on­line the only com­mer­cially avail­able canned skip­jack tuna to guar­an­tee a mer­cury con­tent of less than 0.1 part per mil­lion, one-tenth the FDA limit. Na­tional gro­cery chains have al­ready come call­ing, and Sean ex­pects na­tional re­tail dis­tri­bu­tion some­time in the first quar­ter of 2015. Safe Catch is bet­ting that the $1.8 bil­lion-a-year U.S. shelf-sta­ble­tuna mar­ket will fol­low the path of other pre­mium food cat­e­gories, and that it will soon be reel­ing in sales.


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