Washington -- I went to our nation's capital this week to listen to chefs from around the country urge Congress to tighten up the rules on seafood safety. I heard charges that the current system of seafood inspection was inadequate and that eating seafood could make you ill.
A few hours after the press conference I had a lunch of oysters and bluefish. My seemingly contradictory behavior fits right into the debate over more seafood inspection laws. Despite all the hollering, the theme of the debate seems to be "You can eat your fish and worry about it, too."
On one side of this fight are the folks pushing for more mandatory federal control over seafood inspection. Led by Ellen Haas of Public Voice for Food and Health, a Washington food safety lobby, these folks contend that current methods of detecting contaminated seafood are hit or miss and that a federal program is needed to prevent health risks to the public. One of this side's favorite statistics is that one out of every 1,000 servings of raw or partially cooked shellfish can cause illness.
Attempts to pass seafood inspection legislation have failed in prior sessions of Congress. The program could cost $100 million. White House support has been lukewarm at best. And questions of how it would be paid for and how the Food and Drug Administration and the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture would divide the administrative duties have slowed its progress.
So to revive interest in the issue, Public Voice held a press conference this week at the Capitol with a group called Chefs Helping to Enhance Food Safety. Dressed in white aprons, chefs from Chicago, Detroit, New York, Boston and Washington told a roomful of reporters that more federal inspection of seafood was needed.
The chefs made a striking scene. They also sent out a mixed message. Answering questions about their experiences with seafood, most of the chefs said that while there is contaminated fish out there, it hasn't ever been served in any of their restaurants. They said their trained eyes had kept any troubled seafood from being served to their customers. Nonetheless, they said more laws were needed to protect seafood eaters who don't have their culinary training.
As soon as the chefs' press conference ended, the faxes began flying. Lee J. Weddig, of the National Fisheries Institute, a seafood trade association with headquarters in Arlington, Va., quickly issued a statement saying the country's seafood supply was safe.
Weddig and the industry folks contend that the current seafood inspection situation is good and is getting better. One of their favorite statistics is that the risk of illness is greater from poultry (1 in 25,000) than risk from fish and seafood (1 in 250,000). Poultry, they point out, already has a mandatory federal inspection system.
Both the industry and Public Voice favor mandatory seafood inspection. But the two sides differ over the details of how such a program would be administered.
For me, the most enlightening part of my day in Washington came when several chefs talked about how they made sure their fish was safe.
Most of them, like Nora Pouillon of Restaurant Nora, a Washington establishment known for its organic food, said they carefully chose their seafood supplier. Some, like Chicago restaurateur Gordon Sinclair, said they bought seafood from suppliers that already have a type of seafood inspection program.
Sinclair also had kind words to say about eating raw oysters. This is among the riskiest kind of seafood eating, and it is a practice that several reporters at the press conference said they had given up because of concerns about safety. Sinclair said before eating oysters he always found out what waters the oysters came from. He preferred to eat oysters from cold waters during the colder months of the year.
Will Greenwood, who formerly worked at Baltimore's Peabody Court and the Maryland Inn in Annapolis and is now chef at the Jefferson Hotel in Washington, said that for safety reasons he had begun putting more farm-raised seafood on his menu.
Later that day I had lunch at Greenwood's restaurant, a few blocks from the White House. I had bluefish that Greenwood had smoked over hickory wood and made into cakes. And I had cooked oysters served in their shells atop a bed of chopped turnip greens. Both seafood dishes were magnificent.
I left Washington feeling that some type of mandatory federal seafood inspection is in our future, but probably not in an election year. And my oyster and bluefish lunch reminded me of why this tiring and at times contradictory debate over seafood inspection is so important. The food at the center of the fray is worth fighting for.