23 seafood plants shun additional monitoring

November 01, 1992|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Staff Writer

Nearly half the state's crab-processing plants have shunned a monitoring program established by the industry to guard against bacterial contamination.

Of 50 licensed plants, 23 don't participate, even though the state Health Department endorses the program as a way to ensure the safety of Maryland crab meat.

Designed to spot problems before they become serious, the monitoring detects bacteria such as Listeria monocytogenes, which has been targeted by the Food and Drug Administration as a potential source of trouble in seafood processing.

Food poisoning from Listeria causes an estimated 425 deaths in the United States each year, mostly among the elderly and people whose immune systems have been weakened.

No Listeria deaths or outbreaks have been linked to Maryland crab meat. But concern about the bacterium has added impetus to the industry's monitoring program.

"It gives you an early warning system if something goes wrong, if there's a glitch in your technology," says Bill Sieling, chief of seafood marketing for the state Department of Agriculture.

The FDA agrees.

"We would encourage crab-picking establishments to avail themselves of this service, as a way of ensuring the safety and wholesomeness of their product," says Mary Snyder, chief of policy guidance in the FDA's Office of Seafood.

Maryland companies aren't required to belong to the 2-year-old program. But members say they rely heavily on it because government inspections are limited.

On average, the state inspects each plant once a month, and the Food and Drug Administration comes once a year.

The extra monitoring is done by a seafood-processing expert from the University of Maryland. For twice-a-month checkups, a company pays $75 to $300 a year, depending on the size of its operation.

"This [program] is what we rely on," says Jack Brooks, owner of J. M. Clayton Co. The company, in Cambridge, is Maryland's biggest producer of crab meat.

"The state Health Department is feeling a crunch," says Mr. Brooks. "They are short-staffed, and they don't get around as often as they'd like to."

Another participant is Andrew Tolley, owner of Toddville Seafoods Inc., in Toddville, Dorchester County. He favors frequent inspections.

"The more I learn about bacteria in seafood, the scareder I get," says Mr. Tolley, referring to seminars he's attended about the importance of maintaining a spotless operation.

The monitoring program widens the safety margin, he says. "I've had 50 [crab meat] samples analyzed from my plant this year. Those companies that don't belong to the program may have only had six."

Mr. Tolley says that bacterial contamination at a few plants could endanger the reputation of all Maryland crab meat.

Ralph Cockey is the UM seafood expert who does the supplementary inspections. His findings are reported to the plant owner, not to the state Health Department.

"Most often, it's little things we find," he says. "A laxness develops in some plants."

Some Listeria has turned up.

"We have found it at six plants," says Mr. Cockey. "According to the FDA, no level is acceptable. They had found [Listeria] in some crab plants in Virginia and brought the problem to everyone's attention.

"In all cases [in Maryland], we found it in the plant environment, not in crab meat, and the problems have been . . . corrected."

Though the high heat used in processing kills Listeria, "you've got to always be alert, constantly on guard," Mr. Cockey says.

The monitoring program checks all stages of processing:

* The steaming room, where whole crabs are cooked in large vats.

* The machine line, where the back shell and gills are removed.

* The inspection belt, where workers remove more shell by hand.

* The picking room, where the meat is sorted and packed.

* The pasteurization room, where containers of meat are heated to destroy any remaining disease-carrying bacteria.

The supplementary inspections are co-sponsored and funded by the Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries Association, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources and Maryland Industrial Partnerships, a state program that supports self-help efforts by industries.

Three seafood companies that do not participate take the position that government inspection is sufficient.

"The state comes once a month, and the FDA comes once a year. That's enough for me, buddy," says Ralph Abbott, owner of Island Seafood, on Deal Island in Somerset County.

"I don't feel I have any major problems. You just keep the place as clean as you can and use common sense," says Virgil Ruark, of Charles H. Parks & Co., in Fishing Creek, Dorchester County.

"The state inspection system is an efficient system. They were lax last year; they didn't make their rounds on a regular basis, but it's better now," says S. T. Moore, owner of S. T. Moore & Co., in Hebron, Wicomico County.

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