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Mandatory federal fish inspection law just a matter of time in United States.

Mandatory Federal Fish Inspection Law Just a Matter of Time in United States

All-encompassing alliance of business, consumer activists and politicians push for passage. Seafood industry, historically opposed to government regulation, seeks USDA role to help restore buyer confidence in wholesomeness of products in the marketplace.

Time was when the idea of mandatory federal inspection of seafood was anathema to most members of the diversified U.S. fish industry. From trawler captain to wholesaler to processor, the general opinion was that enough safeguards were already built into the system to guarantee wholesome end-products for consumers. The notion of welcoming further government regulation was dismissed as an unncessary bureaucratic intrusion into the efficiencies of private enterprise.

That time is past.

Today the $30-billion industry is actively petitioning Congress to write an inspection program into law. The National Fisheries Institute (NFI), after much deliberation, has joined the Washington charge in an attempt to reverse setbacks caused by year-long deluge of negative publicity. The often unfounded, sensational media hype has unquestionably hurt sales. Damaging stories ranged from the danger of toxic substance residue in fish harvested from polluted waterways to the discovery of newly classified pathogenic bacteria and viruses present in some species.

After posting steady gains in seafood sales annually since 1982, per capita consumption dropped from a record 15.4 pounds in 1987 to 15 pounds last year. The share of frozen and fresh seafood was reported to have slipped from 10 pounds to 9.6 pounds during the same period. And many industry watchers see the downward trend continuing in 1989.

"We're at a crossroads in our business. We must convince the consumer that we are doing something to assure safety," said newly elected NFI President William Frank at the organization's recent convention in Las Vegas, Nevada. "They perceive problems and an inequity between seafood and poultry and meat (which is USDA-inspected)."

"The problem today is not that there is no inspection system, but rather that the present system is inconsistent and incomplete," Lee Weddig, NFI executive vice president, testified before the the oversight committee of the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee last month. He recommended that the Department of Agriculture be named as the nation's comprehensive fish regulation agency as its managerial infrastructure is thought to be better suited to handle large scale programs than either the Food and Drug Administration or the Department of Commerce. Each agency presently has a hand in certain aspects of seafood regulation.

Some of USDA's advantages were said to be its leading role in aquaculture, strong ties to overseas governments through present inspection programs of other foods, involvement in export enhancement, and a large operating budget.

But the NFI also recognized the negative side of the ledger. "USDA lacks extensive experience with fish," admitted Weddig. "A fish program might be overwhelmed by meat and poultry activities. The idea of continuous inspection may be so ingrained in the USDA that a HACCP (hazard analysis critical control point) program may not work. Also, USDA has no tie to the management of wild stocks of fish."

Who might get the responsibility remains unknown, but it seems clear that Congress is moving in the direction of mandatory inspection. Two bills have already been introduced, one (H.R. 1387) by Rep. Byron L. Dorgan of North Dakota and the other by Gerry E. Studds (H.R. 2511) of Massachusetts. The latter's, which would apply to all fish and shellfish products sold in interstate commerce, calls for President George Bush to establish a system within one year. Among its provisions would be:

* The creation of standards for ensuring conditions in handling, processing and packaging of fish

* Standards for measuring the maximum acceptable level of contaminants in fish

* Improvement in the collection of data related to seafood safety

Congressman Dorgan's proposal would require the Secretary of Agriculture to establish "a comprehensive, statistically sound program of mandatory inspection of the commercial processing of all freshwater and saltwater fish, shellfish, and their products which are used for human consumption."

Dorgan noted that currently only about 20% of the fish eaten in the U.S. undergoes voluntary federal inspection. This generally occurs at the factory level where value-added processors -- many of whom source their raw materials from abroad -- pay a fee for the service. Passing muster enables them to display PUFI (Packed Under Federal Inspection) seals and USDA stamps on packaging.

"There is currently no mandatory inspection of seafood products as there is for meat and poultry. Instead, fish inspection is a hit-or-miss program, paid for by processors themselves," said the North Dakota politician. "While the FDA has some oversight responsibility, their role is limited to spot checks and recall of hazardous products only after they are on the supermarket shelf."

The White House is also getting in on the act, as a Bush cabinet member has apparently given the Administration's blessing. "That (seafood) industry has expanded to the point where mandatory inspection would be in order," remarked Clayton Yeutter, secretary of agriculture. "The voluntary fish inspection program, as it exists today, is not likely to be deemed satisfactory to the American public as (the industry) continues to expand."

The Public Voice for Food and Health, a consumer group that has been lobbying for seafood inspection for years, has applauded the direction recently taken by government leaders. But Ellen Haas, executive director, suggested that it took the power of the pocketbook to ultimately convince business interests to get on the bandwagon.

Last year, she commented, "public concern over fish safety showed up in the marketplace when, after a steady eight-year increase, seafood consumption went down by 2%. The change in public attitudes toward fish is documented in the results of a recently-released Harris public opinion poll...While the number of people buying low-fat or low-cholesterol foods rose nine percentage points from the year before, individuals reporting that they try to eat fish twice a week dropped six percentage points since 1987."

Beyond HAACP

At the NFI Convention in Las Vegas, Bob Brubaker, chairman of the board, reported that the organization's planning and review committee concluded that "slow or no growth" in the industry makes it necessary to go beyond recommending only the institution of a HAACP system. This key tool, he said, must be supplemented with the following: certification of plants; surveillance of operations and imports; increased molluscan growing water monitoring and enforcement; toxic substance monitoring; economic violation (mislabeling) enforcement.

The NFI made it clear that it was not in favor of continuous inspection. President Frank pointed out that the fish industry differs widely from the carcass-by-carcass-inspected meat and poultry business in that fish are not slaughtered and do not transmit disease in the same way. "Not only would it cost a fortune to have inspectors at every dock," he noted, "but they would be less qualified than production managers in plants."

It has also been pointed out that continuous examination could actually delay the quick processing and distribution required to ensure safety and quality to end users.

Cost of inspection, of course, is no minor matter. James Benson, acting deputy commissioner of the FDA, commented on this during an address he gave to the group: "The government will never have the resources to inspect every catch and ensure proper handling all along the route to the retail store. (Our) most effective role is in monitoring seafood from point-of-harvest to point-of-sale. (We are) less effective in serving as the primary quality control factor."

Benson expressed satisfaction that the "vast majority of seafood is safe," although some hazards exist. He said that the FDA, in cooperation with the National Marine Fisheries Service, is "already, to a large extent, doing the job of ensuring seafood safety." But he admitted that a perception problem exists among some consumers.

"I see a disturbing trend," said the FDA officer. "Too many people interpret any news about a new product's risk as meaning the product is `unsafe.' We don't live in a black and white world. We need to improve public understanding of the relative risks presented by food products, and remove the cloud hanging over a number of highly nutritious foods."

Benson revealed that food poisoning caused by seafood represents a small percentage of the total number of reported food poisonings. Nonetheless, he said, respected newspapers like The Wall Street Journal have joined the popular press in highlighting stories about people suffering from rare toxic reactions after eating scallops or shrimp.

"Contaminants, toxins and decomposition associated with seafood do represent serious threats to human health," commented the FDA acting deputy commissioner. "However, most of these problems are isolated to identifiable portions of the industry. For example, two diseases -- ciguatera and scombroid poisoning -- are responsible for four out of five confirmed seafood outbreaks numbering only about 150 illnesses per year. Mishandling and improper cooking are also major causes of illnesses traced to seafood, and these illnesses can be prevented in part by educating food preparers."

Despite the waves of publicity to the contrary, Benson advised that the majority of finfish-related illnesses cannot be blamed on pollution of human origin. "The illnesses we're seeing are caused more often by toxins and microorganisms that are a natural part of the marine ecosystem," he said.

Benson's views were further amplified by Dr. Frank E. Young, FDA Commissioner of Public Health Services. "Although seafood may potentially present a wide variety of health problems, I believe that the current negative perception in consumers' minds is not warranted when the health risks of seafood are compared with other food sources," he testified on June 7 before the House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife Conservation and the Environment Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries.

Young explained that a thorough analysis of data from the Center for Disease Control revealed that because seafood-associated outbreaks are generally smaller, or involved fewer cases, widely distributed reports have wrongly indicated that fish and shellfish appear to be 10 times more likely to cause disease than poultry or beef and veal. When raw molluscan shellfish are removed from the data it is learned that seafood has a risk equal to beef and is somewhat less risky than poultry.

The FDA commissioner suggested that the health benefits of eating seafood far outweigh risks to the general population. He pointed out that greater consumption of fishery products, which are among the potentially healthiest sources of low-fat protein, has been recommended by the Surgeon General as a way to reduce fat intake.

Big Promotions Going

In the meantime, as official Washington sorts through its options on seafood inspection, the NFI has budgeted more than $1-million to conduct a two-year food safety awareness program to boost consumer confidence in seafood products. It will be broadly based to reach everybody from public opinion leaders to retail operators and consumers.

"Our industry has suffered from misleading media coverage over the last few years. It's critical that we take a pro-active stance and develop an aggressive national communications program to overcome any negative images now building in many consumers' minds about the safety of our seafood supply," said Don Short, chairman of the Institute's promotions committee.

The campaign, which began in mid-June, is scheduled to run through September. Sixty percent of its financing will come from NFI coffers, while the remainder will be raised through donations from some of the trade association's more than 1,000 member companies.

The promotion should greatly benefit from a federally-funded $6.5-million multi-media push orchestrated by the National Fish & Seafood Promotional Council. Under the banner "Eat Fish and Seafood Twice a Week," the two-year generic advertising and public relations program is geared to stimulate product awareness and increase the frequency of consumption by the 66% of Americans who already eat fish at least once in a two-week period.

Hoping to Turn Tide

While the quick passage of a mandatory seafood inspection bill is thought to be unlikely in a historically slow-moving Congress, the fact that it is being seriously discussed could help turn the tide of depressed fish sales directly attributable to safety concerns. "Even if inspection isn't implemented for a few years, criticism from the public will be diffused," said one major processor. "The problem until now is we've been accused of stalling."

PHOTO : Outgoing NFI President Thomas Elliott (l) and Chairman Bob Brubaker take questions about

PHOTO : proposed mandatory inspection of fish and seafood during a meeting at the organization's

PHOTO : Las Vegas confab.
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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Saulnier, John M.
Publication:Quick Frozen Foods International
Date:Jul 1, 1989
Words:2066
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