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Seafood safety: consumers and manufacturers at risk.

Extensive Media coverage of a handful of deaths and hundreds of illnesses from tainted meat has brought the issues of food safety and inspection into Americans' homes. Many who never had doubted the government's ability to protect them from contaminated food now wonder if the Federal agencies are doing their job.

However, what about the type of flesh food that is not subject to any comprehensive mandatory inspection program-seafood? With only a patchwork of mostly voluntary and state inspection programs, contaminated seafood all too easily makes its way to consumers' plates. Is this a cause for concem? It is to Vicki Peal, whose father died from Vibrio vulnificus eating raw oysters in 1992; Barbara Simpson, who lost her husband to scombroid poisoning from tuna; and the many others who have had friends or family die or become ill or have been sickened themselves from tainted fish. Without strong action by the Federal government, the victims of contaminated catch will continue to add up.

Many Americans have turned to seafood as a lower-fat, high-protein component of their diets. Yet, this potentially healthful food is harvested in the wild from an environment that may be polluted with sewage, pesticides, and industrial chemicals. Moreover, seafood can contain natural toxins, such as scombroid and ciguatera, that can cause illness and, in some instances, death.

Seafood constitutes a significant food safety problem. A representative from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) told a Congressional subcommittee in 1993 that seafood illnesses accounted for 20% of all reported incidents of food poisoning and five percent of outbreak-associated cases reported to the CDC between 1973 and 1991.

In the last two years, sources ranging from the National Academy of Sciences to Consumer Reports have documented that contaminated seafood all too easily reaches consumers after slipping through the patchwork of voluntary Federal and state programs. The following are just a few examples of unsafe seafood making its way to consumers' tables: * In 1992, at least nine people died in Florida following consumption of raw oysters contaminated with Vibrio vulnificus, and there were unconfirmed reports of more than four Vibrio-related deaths in 1993. This bacteria is common in the marine environment and can be fatal for individuals with certain conditions, such as alcoholism, liver disease, cancer, diabetes, kidney disease, AIDS, and blood disorders. More than two years ago, Public Voice wrote to Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner David Kessler, urging him to put a mandatory waming label on raw molluscan shellfish to alert at-risk consumers of the danger to their health. The FDA has failed to take any action on this request.

A daughter of one of the victims, Vicki Peal, wrote Kessler, expressing outrage that not enough was being done to warn the public about the risks posed by raw shellfish. "If my father had the knowledge that I have today . . . he might have been able to seek help and receive treatment. You had this knowledge for years . . . why didn't you use it to protect my father?" * In June, 1993, it was disclosed that Federal FDA inspectors allowed 2,000,000 pounds of seafood, including 20 tons or more of contaminated products, to be imported into New York and New Jersey in the late 1980s and 1990. Following an investigation of the U.S. Customs Services that found "ingrained pervasive corruption among inspectors and [food] importers," three former FDA inspectors pleaded guilty and another was indicted for accepting bribes. These revelations followed a 1988 review of the FDA's enforcement program for imported products by the Inspector General that found the FDA was inspecting only a small percentage of imported items. Moreover, some of the items that were denied entry were not destroyed or re-exported, as required, but, rather, made their way into the U.S. market. * In April and May, 1992, there were at least 21 outbreaks of scombroid poisoning from fresh tuna involving a minimum of 79 illnesses in five states. The implicated tuna primarily was imported from Ecuador. According to a CDC memo, the FDA was aware of outbreaks from tuna as early as May 1, but the agency made no effort to wam consumers and waited until late May to alert the states formally. Only one of the five states with outbreaks issued a consumer alert. * The FDA allowed a type of fish called escolar, that was known to cause severe diarrhea, to be sold in the Washington, D.C., area until a physician at the National Institutes of Health purchased the fish and personally experienced its side effects. According to a report in The Washington Post in May, 1992, it only was pulled from the market after the physician, who was concerned about its effects on children and the elderly, researched the scientific literature and notified the FDA. The agency then contacted restaurant and seafood trade groups to instruct their members to stop selling the fish, but, according to the Post, some local grocery stores were never informed and continued to sell the product. * A February, 1992, Consumer Reports investigation discovered "much fish unfit to eat." In tests of 113 samples of seafood from New York and Chicago outlets, the magazine found nearly 40% was spoiled or near spoiled. Chemical contaminants also were present. PCBs were present in 43% of the salmon tested, 25% of the swordfish, and 50% of the lake whitefish. Mercury was found in 90% of the swordfish. DDT and other banned pesticides were found in catfish, lake whitefish, and swordfish. Lead was present in clams. These residues may cause cancer and developmental disorders in infants and young children.

These examples represent just the tip of the iceberg. The exact number of victims is unknown, as there are significant barriers to reporting seafood-borne ailments. For instance, most illnesses that are primarily seafood-borne - such as ciguatera, scombroid poisoning, and Vibrio vulnificusare not required to be reported to the CDC. In addition, doctors and hospitals often don't recognize them as being related to seafood consumption.

Consumer reactions

Consumer confidence has begun to decline. In 1992, the Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket industry trade association, attributed a 10% dip in consumer confidence in the food supply to seafood safety concerns. Similarly, the 1992 Prevention Index reported a drop in those who say they eat seafood. Twenty-seven percent stated that they ate fish twice a week, down from 34% in 1985.

Chefs across the country are concerned as well. Over the past two years, Chefs Helping to Enhance Food Safety, a nationwide coalition of more than 600 chefs, has urged Congress at briefings, press conferences, and hearings to pass seafood safety legislation. Many have seen firsthand the horrors of unsafe seafood. One, Nancy Longo from Baltimore's Pierpoint restaurant, shared her story at a Congressional bearing. Seafood contaminated with bacteria made her so ill, she had to have lymph nodes removed, suffers recurrent pain, and must handle seafood only with gloves.

"This experience highlighted for me the care I must take in serving seafood to my customers," she told legislators. "I am extremely cautious about choosing fish that appears fresh and wholesome and cooking it thoroughly. Even with these cautions, however, I can not detect all the potential hazards that are present. Fish that looks and smells perfect can still contain natural toxins, like scombroid poisoning or ciguatera, and chemical contaminants, like mercury and pesticides."

In March, 1993, FDA Commissioner Kessler admitted that "illnesses do occur from seafood - and most of them are preventable." He announced his intention to propose a Federal regulation implementing a mandatory Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) program for seafood processors. He said this would offer a "significant qualitative improvement over the cuffent system." The system of safety controls formally was proposed in January, 1994. It is unlikely the regulation will become effective before 1996.

However, HACCP is not a government health and safety regulatory program. It is a control system that can be applied by virtually any type of manufacturing. The processing plant identifies points at which problems may arise and then tries to prevent them by controlling what happens at those points.

Under the FDA's HACCP program, seafood processors are required to develop, implement, and keep records of in-plant programs. Yet, chronically insufficient funding for FDA food safety programs means that there will be no increase in inspectors to guarantee that all processors are complying with the regulation, making the FDA's proposal an industry honor system. While this is a good first step, it will offer consumers little additional protection without greater resources and authority from Congress.

Currently, the FDA lacks the enforcement and oversight capability to close down processing plants that are not operating in compliance with the agency's rules. It also can not close down polluted harvesting waters or regulate boats used to harvest seafood or trucks that transport it. The FDA has failed to set legally binding tolerances for chemical and microbiological contaminants or to sample seafood adequately to ensure that it is safe to eat. Moreover, the FDA never has had the authority or funding necessary to regulate adequately a product like seafood that is associated with a myriad of public health risks. Only Congressional action can correct this situation and assure that consumers are protected adequately.

Many on Capitol Hill understand the need for action, although disagreements on exactly how it should be accomplished and a decade of Federal neglect have doomed bill after bill. Since 1990, numerous pieces of legislation have been introduced and a dozen hearings have been held. In 1992, a bill was sponsored by six ranking Democratic and Republican senators, including Majority Leader George Mitchell. However, the legislation died as a result of Bush Administration opposition and the seafood industry's push for a weak program.

What is needed

Even with HACCP, the continuing absence of a number of elements in the FDA's authority creates a significant gap in public health protection. Legislation to give the agency essential inspection and oversight authority to complement HACCP would include the following components:

Closure of waters. Contaminated waters produce contaminated fish. The FDA must be able to monitor waters and sample seafood, closing waters to commercial and recreational fishers or otherwise limiting fishing if a significant public health risk is discovered. Shellfish harvesting waters should be mohitored and classified according to their suitability for harvesting.

Inspections of processing facilities. Frequent, unannounced inspections of domestic seafood processing facilities by Federal agents can help prevent illnesses related to processing and handling. Domestic facilities that process fish products should be registered and subject to random inspection and sampling. Imported fish products should be inspected and sampled at the port of entry, and foreign processing plants should be subject to random inspection to ensure that they meet national standards.

Regulation of imported seefood. About half of all seafood consumed in the U.S. is imported. Yet, these imports - amounting to nearly 2,000,000,000 pounds a year - are subject to only minimal inspection at the port of entry.

Safe handling standards for fishing vessels and enforcement through unannounced inspections are essential to minimize the potential risk to consumers from scombroid poisoning and other illnesses caused by mishandling.

Public health surveillance program. Greater emphasis must be placed on the reporting and collection of seafood-bome illness data. Currently, the CDC does not require such disclosure, and many state health departments adopt similar guidelines. A more thorough reporting system will make it possible for officials to assess more accurately risk from seafood-borne illnesses, develop strategies and policies to reduce it, and pinpoint areas where improvement of the inspection program is necessary.

Strong standards for contaminants. Despite the fact that, since 1938, the FDA has had authority to set formal tolerances to limit the level of contaminants in seafood offered for sale, the agency has set only one. Many potentially harmful chemicals common in seafood-such as mercury, dioxin, and DDT-do not have formal standards. Legislation should provide the FDA with a formal mandate and deadlines to assure that the agency will set chemical and microbial tolerances to limit the contaminants in seafood. Standards must protect high-consumption populations (such as Great Lake sport fishers) and high-risk populations (such as women of childbearing age and children). They must cover both added and naturally occurring contaminants uniformly.

Sampling. Extensive tissue sampling is critical for identifying microbiological contamination and is the only method available to disclose chemical contaminants in seafood. The FDA's sampling program is highly inadequate, though the agency claims it has doubled the sampling of seafood for the presence of chemical contaminants. An examination of the data shows that the number of samples has nearly doubled to more than 2,000 analyzed per year, an amount that still is highly inadequate considering that Americans consume nearly 4,000,000,000 pounds of seafood annually.

Enforcement. To ensure that tainted seafood can be removed from the market, safety legislation must include: recall authority to stop contaminated seafood from reaching consumers; substantial fines and public disclosure of names to discourage violations of the law; and whistle-blower protection laws that recognize the role workers play in preventing violations of health standards.

After years of denying that problems exist within the seafood supply, the FDA finally is acknowledging what many consumers and chefs have known for some time - problems do exist and many are preventable. Without Congressional action, despite the positive steps the FDA has initiated, the safety of the nation's seafood supply will continue to be a matter of public health concern. Consumers will remain needlessly exposed to health hazards from chemical and microbial contaminants and natural toxins, while the health of the seafood industry is threatened as well.

Passage of legislation would go a long way towards instilling consumer confidence in a nutritious food and reducing the risks from unsafe seafood. The tools of prevention are there. Only political will is needed to stop unnecessary illnesses and deaths from contaminated seafood.
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Article Details
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Author:DeWaal, Caroline Smith; Obester, Tricia
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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