New seafood safety rules are expected

January 21, 1994|By New York Times News Service

The federal government is expected to announce today that it will for the first time require the seafood industry to keep detailed records of safety procedures and to label shellfish to show where it comes from.

The new regulations are a major shift in the government's efforts to ensure the safety of seafood. They are aimed at preventing health problems from occurring rather than reacting to outbreaks of illness, said Dr. David A. Kessler, the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration.

In recent years, reports of several deaths from seafood poisoning, a devastating study by Consumer Reports on contamination of fish across the country and a constant flow of warnings from officials about tainted shellfish from various areas has shaken the public's confidence.

Per-capita consumption of seafood in the United States has dropped about 8 percent since its peak in 1987, said Lee Weddig, executive vice president of the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group based in Arlington, Va.

Both industry and consumer groups favor a more rigorous approach than the current piecemeal system that manages to inspect only a tiny fraction of the nation's seafood consumption.

But while the industry is delighted with the proposals because they might reassure people who have been nervous about eating fish, consumer groups say the new rules will not do enough to reduce illnesses and deaths from the consumption of bad seafood.

"This is a very positive first step that we've waited for eight years," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of legal affairs for Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a consumer group based in Washington that has long lobbied for seafood safety legislation. "We've got a long way to go."

The same kind of system is being considered by the Agriculture Department to try to prevent tainted meat from reaching the public.

The Centers for Disease Control says 9,000 deaths occur each year from food poisoning, but it cannot say how many are caused specifically by tainted fish, meat or poultry, the three main offenders.

Congress has failed for several years to enact seafood-safety legislation, so the Food and Drug Administration decided to approach the problem administratively, using the authority it already has. The regulations will go into effect one year after a 90-day period for public comment ends -- probably in the spring of next year.

Under the new program, the government will continue its inspections. But in addition, all fish will have to come from waters certified as clean by the government. Shellfish will have to be tagged to identify where it was harvested and those tags will have to be kept for 90 days by the seller.

In the past it has not always been possible to trace an outbreak of illness to its source because there was no way to know where the shellfish came from. The government will also have easy access to these records.

"I think we are moving into the modern age," said Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala. "The system we have now is based on principles that are 50 years old. The new system, based on science, clearly will be the standard for the world."

In 1985, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the seafood industry use the system known as HACCP (pronounced hass-IP), for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. It is already used by some food processors. It has these five basic steps:

* Analysis of the hazards.

* Determination of where in the processing operation a hazard is likely to occur.

* Controls needed to avoid the problem.

* Monitoring of those controls.

* Maintenance of careful records.

Companies would be required to keep fish at proper temperatures and to separate raw and cooked fish, which is necessary to avoid cross contamination,

Under the new regulations, all 5,000 companies that handle seafood will have to use the HACCP system. Mr. Weddig, of the the National Fisheries Institute, said his organization supported the Food and Drug Administration's action. "It's important to the industry," he said, "because there are a few situations where we have some problems. And now everybody will be following the same rules."

Dr. Kessler has said the only way to ensure that fish is safe to eat was by inspecting it from the moment it is caught until the time it leaves the store.

But without legislative authority his agency cannot inspect fishing vessels or retail stores, cannot close polluted harvesting waters and cannot require the recall of hazardous food. By demanding that the processors take responsibility for their vendors' adherence to the new regulations, Dr. Kessler said he believed the agency would overcome its lack of authority in these areas.

Ms. Shalala said her agency and Dr. Kessler's would consider making a request to Congress for additional regulatory powers. "There is reason to believe," she said, "that there is interest in Congress."

Ms. DeWaal of Public Voice said the proposals for fish safety were hampered by the food agency's lack of authority. "The FDA wants to be the cop on the beat but they need more ammunition," she said. "We are really concerned that what they are trying to do they are doing without any additional resources."

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