Report Cites Seafood Safety Lapses

Wednesday, February 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) — Less than half of seafood firms are following safety standards to ensure Americans don't eat bad fish, and government inspectors aren't cracking down on violations, says a scathing new congressional report on seafood safety.

``The potential health risks associated with these violations are significant,'' says the report released Tuesday.

The Food and Drug Administration acknowledged some problems and put seafood companies on alert: Instead of annual inspections, FDA inspectors will visit firms it considers high-risk repeatedly this year to check for contamination, and act quickly to shut down those that violate safety rules.

``We have made progress ... but a lot more needs to be done,'' said FDA food safety chief Joseph Levitt. Particularly for companies handling seafood easily contaminated with listeria, histamines and other toxins, ``we're recognizing that's a problem and we're going to be in there much more visibly, much more forcefully.''

The get-tough pledge comes as the General Accounting Office, Congress' investigative arm, said the FDA has improved seafood safety but that serious gaps remain.

The FDA unveiled a strict new safety program in 1997 that was supposed to prevent 60,000 of the estimated 114,000 food poisonings Americans suffer from bad seafood each year.

Under HACCP, the ``hazard analysis and critical control point'' system, seafood plants must follow customized plans proving they took steps to prevent contamination at every stop between the fishing boat and shipping to consumers. Step No. 1 for tuna processors, for instance, is to ensure the fish were adequately chilled on the boat and didn't stay at sea too long because scombroid poisoning can occur if tuna even slightly decomposes.

But three years later, only 44 percent of companies are meeting the standards, the GAO report said.

Over half of inspections of domestic seafood processors found serious violations, yet FDA didn't move quickly to make the companies shape up, the investigators found.

As for imported seafood, even when FDA inspectors find serious problems at foreign seafood plants, the agency doesn't automatically examine those companies' products at U.S. ports, the GAO said. FDA moved to block imports from nine foreign companies only after investigators raised the issue.

And while FDA recently warned pregnant women not to consume four fish species that harbor high levels of mercury, the agency doesn't require HACCP-following seafood plants to check for mercury contamination, the report said. Different fish species harbor different mercury levels, which at high enough levels can harm an unborn baby's or young child's developing brain.

``I would not call an inspection system with little inspection and virtually no enforcement an inspection system. I'd call it an outbreak waiting to happen,'' said Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who with Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., requested the investigation and plan safety hearings this spring.

``The report confirms that FDA's food safety program gets a failing grade,'' said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the consumer advocacy Center for Science in the Public Interest, who wants more seafood companies inspected and required to actually test seafood for contamination. ``Congress needs to give FDA significant new resources to remedy these problems.''

But the industry says it's improving.

``There's indications that seafood is safer than ever,'' said Richard Gutting, president of the National Fisheries Institute, citing preliminary statistics suggesting seafood-associated disease outbreaks have dropped by half since 1997. ``We remain committed to further improving the program.''

FDA's Levitt expected it to take several years for the mostly tiny businesses that never before had to follow FDA rules to learn how. More than 44 percent of companies are following safety rules but weren't counted because they're not yet perfect, he said.

Still, Levitt said FDA will crack down on high-risk firms — those whose seafood is vulnerable to pathogens like the dangerous germ listeria or to allergy-causing histamines, and those that haven't begun HACCP.

Those firms should expect more frequent inspections and FDA laboratory testing for contamination. Violators should expect faster prosecution, he said, citing as an example a Seattle smoked-fish company that FDA shut down last month for repeated listeria contamination.


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