WASHINGTON — While most seafood sold to the American public is safe, the federal government's inspection program is "too limited" to ensure its enhanced safety to consumers, a National Academy of Sciences panel said yesterday.
The 13-member panel, following two years of study, recommended that more emphasis should be placed by the government's monitoring programs on the quality of the harvesting waters and contaminants in the edible portion of the fish.
Meanwhile, the panel of scientists, academics and industry representatives said that the greatest health risk from seafood is eating raw mollusks -- such as oysters, clams and mussels -- and recommended they be sufficiently cooked to "destroy parasites and bacterial contaminants."
Recreational and subsistence fishermen -- who haul in about 20 percent of the fish caught in the United States -- are largely ignored by federal health and safety monitoring, said the panel, which suggested a "marine recreational fishing license system" to distribute information on risks involved from fishing in areas where there are natural toxins or chemical pollutants.
Congress requested the study after an increase in fish consumption brought on a wave of concern about seafood safety. Some consumer groups hope the study will provide a boost for seafood inspection legislation that stalled in the last Congress.
But while U.S. consumption of fish amounted to 16 pounds per person in 1989 -- an increase of almost 60 percent during the past decade -- the incidents of seafood-related illnesses remained constant, about 21 percent of all food-related illnesses from meat, fish and poultry.
Still, the panel noted that most cases of seafood-related illnesses are not reported and the federal Center for Disease Control should mount a better effort to determine the extent of such illnesses.
"Fish in general is a safe food" but "there are problem areas," said J. Glenn Morris Jr., a panel member and associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
Seafood is regulated jointly by state agencies and three federal agencies, although there is too much emphasis on the market product and not enough on the detection of contaminants in live seafood and the growing waters, the panel found.
"What's most important is what's going on in the growing water from where the shellfish is taken," said Mr. Morris.
The panel found that current government methods of monitoring harvest waters for mollusks can detect some bacteria but miss other health hazards, such as viruses that cause hepatitis. New and better monitoring standards must be developed, the panel said.
"We've been pushing that idea for years," said W. Peter Jensen, director of fisheries with the Maryland Department of Resources. Maryland now produces some 81 million pounds of seafood each year, including 50 million pounds of crabs and oysters, said Mr. Jensen, adding that the state has for some time had a strong growing-water monitoring program.
The panel said that to eliminate bacteria in shellfish it may be necessary to restrict harvests when water temperatures are high, to chill products and possibly to irradiate live shellstock and shucked products.
Meanwhile, the panel said that government inspectors too often focus on the analysis of inedible parts of the fish or shellfish, such as the liver or gall bladder. "These analyses, by their design, offer insufficient insight into contaminant levels," the panel found, saying inspection should focus on the edible portion at the point of capture.
Federal guidelines on chemical contamination are limited in scope and "questionable as to the levels set," said the panel, adding that there is little coordination between the federal government and the states.
But a spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration, one of the federal agencies charged with seafood safety, defended its work and noted the FDA this year embarked on a pilot study for a new seafood inspection program at nine seafood processing plants. The program, based on Hazards Analysis Critical Control Point -- a technique endorsed by the Institute study -- includes monitoring fish and shellfish from the point they are caught to the point they arrive at the grocer's display case.
Both industry and consumer groups backed the study -- for different reasons.
The National Fisheries Institute, which represents 1,000 seafood processing and monitoring companies, said the study "reaffirms our belief that fish and seafood are inherently safe and wholesome." The focus should now be on monitoring and assessing environmental contaminants so "these do not become long-term problems."
But Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice, a non-profit consumer group, said the institute "has pointed to a number of gaps in existing programs that leave consumers exposed to serious environmental and microbiological hazards."
"Their recommendations for a more comprehensive seafood safety program . . . provide added support for strong seafood safety legislation in the upcoming Congress."