Preliminary results from the first complete inspection of American seafood processing facilities ever conducted by the federal government show that as many as 20 percent of the samples analyzed showed evidence of microbiological contamination, decomposition and filth.
The as-yet-unpublished findings, by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's newly created Office of Seafood in Washington, indicate that the seafood industry has yet to solve a host of product safety problems.
The inspections also found evidence of economic fraud. Forty product samples were considered economic violations for improper labeling, misbranding, or short-weight problems.
The National Fisheries Institute accused the Los Angeles Times of a "deliberative distortion of FDA data about the wholesomeness of seafood on the U.S. market." But a Washington-based consumer advocate and leading seafood industry critic called the findings "damaging" and cause for public concern.
Jeff Grolig, the corporate seafood buyer for Sutton Place Gourmet, said "you always see some" contamination of seafood in the Baltimore-Washington region but "20 percent is definitely an exaggeration in this area."
"There's a high demand for seafood and this area turns it over very quickly," said Mr. Grolig, who purchases all the seafood for the chain, which has a string of stores in the Washington area and one in Pikesville.
In buying shellfish, "the consumer needs to know where the product's coming from," said Mr. Grolig. "If they don't know or can't tell you an answer, you could be at risk."
However, Mr. Grolig stressed that the majority of seafood problems have little to do with pollution. "The majority of problems result from the handling," he said, especially in the length of time fish has been out of the water.
The FDA review of 3,852 processing plants encompassed manufacturers, growers, repackers, shippers -- all types and sizes of processing operations below the wholesale level. Officials say that all commercial species of fin fish and shellfish are being analyzed for contaminants and other problems. The purpose of the survey, which may be finished by late April, is to identify the industry's most se
vere problems and to suggest how the FDA should allocate its resources.
First inspection results were compiled for two important seafood producing areas: the Pacific Coast and the Southeastern United States. In the FDA's Pacific region, which includes California, Oregon, Washington and Alaska, the agency found that 711, or 20.8 percent, of the 3,415 samples analyzed in laboratories were in violation of federal health or marketing standards. In the Southeast, a total of 1,885 samples were analyzed and 284 violations, or 15 percent, were found.
The violation rates exceed those of any other food commodity regulated by the FDA. By comparison, the FDA's extensive pesticide monitoring program has found only 1.1 percent of the domestic and imported foods analyzed in 1990 to be in violation of federal chemical residue standards. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture has jurisdiction over the meat and poultry supply while the FDA is responsible for all other foods.)
Thomas Billy, director of FDA's Office of Seafood, explained that the violation rate for seafood appears elevated because FDA investigators intentionally targeted those species and fishing grounds that "have historically had problems." (Similar targeting is also done in the FDA's pesticide monitoring program.) Mr. Billy said that the 15 percent violation rate is "pretty typical" of what to expect in other areas of the country.
"This demonstrates -- all too sadly for the consumer -- decades of gross negligence," said Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice for Food & Health Policy, a Washington-based advocacy group. "Without a rigorous system of seafood safety . . . this will be the pattern of contamination that -- all too easily -- makes it to the consumer's dinner table."