Chase of the scallops brings monitoring of seafood into question

November 29, 1992|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Call it the Case of the Swollen Scallops, o how a half-ton of chemically treated shellfish eluded the federal seafood police.

From New England to Maryland and back, the scallops led the Food and Drug Administration on a merry chase. Then the shipment slipped through the dragnet and vanished.

This goes to show, some critics say, that the FDA, the federal agency most responsible for the safety of seafood, lacks the clout to do a proper job.

"As consumers, we have to rely mostly on a failed patchwork of voluntary federal and state seafood safety programs," says Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a consumer lobby group. "This is why we have problems with contaminated seafood in this country."

Last year, the National Academy of Sciences reported that seafood sold in the U.S. is generally wholesome.

But regulation of the industry is "too limited," the academy said in a study commissioned by Congress.

The FDA acknowledges that it has limited resources to monitor an industry that is both huge and diverse -- 4,000 seafood processing plants, hundreds of products and 180,000 shipments imported seafood a year.

The scallop chase began in April, on a crisp spring morning in New Bedford, Mass., when FDA inspectors paid a surprise visit to Northern Wind, one of several seafood-processing plants around New England to receive snap inspections that week.

At Northern Wind, the inspectors found what they had expected: nearly 1,000 pounds of scallops soaking in a solution of sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP).

It is a legal food additive, but one that has been overused on scallops, the FDA says.

Other inspectors made similar finds at other plants in New

England. But in all cases, not having the authority to seize the suspect scallops, the inspectors took samples and asked the companies to withhold the product voluntarily from market while the FDA ran tests.

Northern Wind's co-owner, Kenneth Melanson, says he complied, and placed the scallops -- almost $5,000 worth -- in a freezer. But he insists that treating scallops with STPP is legitimate.

"It's something I've been doing for 15 years. We all have," he says. "The practice is safe; it increases shelf life and gives a better taste [to the scallops].

"What's wrong with that?"

The FDA takes a different view. "We had been trying for months to get [the scallop processors] to stop the soaking," says Ed McDonnell, director of the FDA's Boston office, which co-ordinated the snap inspections.

"We warned them repeatedly."

The salt-like STPP is not intrinsically harmful. The FDA allows processors to spray the chemical onto scallops before shipment to keep them moist and fresh-looking. The agency also allows it to be used on prepared meats, like ham and turkey.

But FDA officials say that overuse of STPP causes foods to "lock in" excess water. This raises the weight -- and hence the price -- of such a shipment.

"We've seen soaking for hours and days and, in one case, for up to a week," says Mr. McDonnell. "It can increase the weight by up to 40 percent."

"What they're essentially doing is selling water at $5 a pound," adds Robert Crowell, acting chief of investigations for the FDA office in Boston.

'Absolute balderdash'

"That's absolute balderdash," retorts Brian Veasy, a New Bedford processor of scallps who set up the American Scallop Association in the heat of the dispute to fight for the industry's interests. "Every can [of scallops] is clearly labeled, showing all the contents. Nobody's being cheated."

His association has mounted a $75,000 research study that he hopes will prompt the FDA to change the regulations for scallop processing and marketing and set clear guidelines for STPP use.

Mr. Veasy accuses the FDA of deliberately exaggerating STPP's water-logging effect on scallops.

"There is a slight weight gain, just as there is with chicken and turkey and a whole lot of other products where it's used," Mr. Veasy says. "But it's something the wholesalers demand because it increases the shelf life."

While the debate heated up, Northern Wind's Mr. Melanson began to fret about the half-ton of scallops in his freezer. Days passed. Then a week. And then a second week without any word from the FDA.

Nearly three weeks after the snap inspection, an FDA official telephoned Northern Wind and asked if the scallops still were there. But Mr. Melanson says the official gave no indication when or how the matter would be resolved.

Exasperated, Mr. Melanson shipped the scallops the next day to fish wholesaler Louis Foehrkolb in Jessup, Md.

The Foehrkolb company supplies restaurants and retailers in the Baltimore-Washington area.

It took a few weeks for the FDA office in Boston to find out that the shellfish had flown, so to speak. It asked the agency's Baltimore bureau to prevent the scallops from reaching the market.

Once again, lacking the power of seizure, the Baltimore FDA officials could only ask the Jessup wholesaler to hold the shipment. It did so, voluntarily.

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