FDA program for seafood safety praised, questioned Agency's powers may not be enough

March 24, 1993|By Peter Honey | Peter Honey,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- The Food and Drug Administration' promise to adopt a new mandatory program for seafood safety and quality control has met with praise and skepticism from consumer advocates who question whether the FDA has the necessary enforcement powers.

Praise, because just about everyone concerned with seafood safety agrees that the the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) procedure, as it is known, is the best way to reduce seafood poisonings, which federal authorities believe kill 9,000 people and sicken millions in the United States each year.

Skepticism, because FDA commissioner David Kessler said this week that he can implement an effective HACCP program using existing legislation.

The program would not put government inspectors in seafood processing plants, stores or restaurants, but would require those establishments to develop their own quality control procedures subject to government monitoring.

"It's fine to set up a HACCP program," said Carol Foreman, a Washington-based consumer and labor advocate who ran the meat and poultry inspection program in the Carter administration's Department of Agriculture.

"But people have to understand that HACCP is just another fancy 10 dollar phrase that's meaningless unless it comes with adequate standards and enforcement."

For some states, such as Maryland, which have been developing HACCP techniques since the early 1980s to reduce contamination of fish and all meats in retail outlets and processing plants, the federal agency's move may have little practical effect.

But the FDA's decision would help states by providing valuable technical assistance -- especially in setting scientific standards for contamination of seafood, which would be difficult with limited state resources, said Jeanette Lyon, chief of the division of food control in the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Some food safety activists believe the commissioner's announcement was intended in part to pre-empt legislation that Dr. Kessler fears would force the FDA into an awkward regulatory partnership with the more powerful Department of Agriculture.

Under current law the FDA does not have the authority to seize suspect fish shipments or subpoena company records.

Its inspectors generally rely on fish processors' fear of adverse publicity to make them comply with safety standards.

FDA officials admit that they often turn to sister agencies like the Agriculture and Commerce departments, which do have powers of arrest, to help them seize or prevent trade in bad fish.

The FDA's deputy commissioner for policy, Michael Taylor, insisted yesterday that his agency did have the necessary authority to conduct an effective federal HACCP program and to draw up regulations that would require companies to keep procedural records.

But lawmakers said the limitations on the FDA's authority to subpoena company records could prove a major obstacle to the enforcement of the program.

FDA officials said they hope to complete a draft of the HACCP regulations for public comment in the spring.

Maryland began developing an HACCP program for its 17,000 food retailers in 1985, Ms. Lyon said.

"Has it reduced the incidence of food poisoning? I would thinso, because it's inherently designed to improve quality control, but it's something we can't measure," she said.

She said the state has begun with HACCP procedures for many of the 659 food processors, manufacturers and wholesalers.

But budgetary cutbacks have slowed the process.

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