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Let's save our store fishmongers

Seafood is one of our healthiest and easiest-to- prepare

foods. So why last year did the average American consume just 15.6 pounds, as

compared to a whopping 118 pounds of red meat?

A lot of us are confused about fish. After all, there are more than 500

species and lots of questions about taste, cooking, preparation and what is

safe to eat. Which is why, when I read that some supermarkets, including Stop &

Shop on Long Island, are eliminating most of their full-service seafood

departments, I have to shake my head in despair.

What comes to mind is the age-old story of that hot dog vendor on the side

of the road. As his competitor does better and better, he works fewer hours and

offers less to his customers as a way to cut costs - and finally goes out of

business. And that's exactly what could happen to those retailers who move away

from full-service departments.

Vishal Singh, an assistant professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon

University in Pittsburgh, has studied the impact of seafood and other

full-service departments. He found, for example, that the arrival of a Wal-Mart

Supercenter, where the seafood department is self-service, results in an

almost immediate 17 percent sales loss for nearby grocery stores. But consumers

most likely to stay loyal to their regular, non-self-service supermarket

tended to spend more on seafood.

AC Nielsen's Homescan panel, which monitors shopping behavior and

purchasing, says there is much unrealized potential in fresh seafood: Shrimp

and salmon are bought by slightly more than 20 percent of American households,

and catfish and scallops by 10 percent - mere fractions of the 80 percent for

hot dogs, 75 percent for ground beef and 70 percent for steak. Tuna is the No.

1 seller, followed by shrimp, salmon, crab, clams (including mussels),

sardines, oysters and tilapia.

Why would any supermarket that says it is concerned about profits walk away

from maximizing the added potential?

And why do I want to keep my fishmonger? Because we need to know more

about health, food safety, labels and cooking.

Seafood is an important and necessary food that can help reverse America's

languishing state of health and wellness. In a study published last October in

the Journal of the American Medical Association, the life-saving message to

consumers is that even a moderate amount of seafood consumption can reduce

coronary death by 36 percent and total mortality by 17 percent.

Who's going to explain the difference between wild or farm-raised fish when

the issue makes headlines? Who is going to explain that farmed salmon has a

pink coloring added to give it the color that comes naturally to wild salmon

(from eating other smaller fish)?

Who is going to remind us that the larger the fish, the older the fish,

and, typically, since they are in waters longer than smaller fish, those

species will contain more toxins in general?

We need the fishmonger to separate fact from fiction.

We can't believe the labels. There is no such thing as "organic" seafood.

As yet, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has not issued regulations for it.

You will wind up paying 30 percent to 50 percent more, and get ripped off.

I receive hundreds of e-mails each month from consumers complaining about

seafood. And almost all are focused around its proper cooking.

Without a full-service seafood department manager, who can help? Unlike

meat, seafood requires short cooking times at a high temperature. Fish is

naturally tender and contains very little connective tissue. As a result, most

people overcook fish and find it dry and tasteless.

We need our fishmongers! Full-service departments in supermarkets are what

make a store fun, exciting and empowering to shoppers. These are the sections

of the store that people come back for; these are where the store can create an

identity and where it can celebrate food. Can you picture a Whole Foods,

Trader Joe's or Stew Leonard's without service departments? Of course not.

And by the way, it's important to note that these retailers continue to

grow and attract new shoppers, while the others that move more toward cost-

saving measures generally are seeing their customer base decline.

Where would you rather buy your foods?