Stiff seafood safety rules may sink small handlers

January 22, 1994|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Staff Writer

A new federal plan for seafood safety would affect dozens of Maryland packing plants and wholesalers and could drive small operators out of business.

But some companies and officials see overall benefits for the Maryland industry. The state has a head start in seafood regulation, they say, and companies elsewhere will face increased costs as they struggle to comply.

The new guidelines, which require strict monitoring of all steps in seafood processing and distribution, would "put everyone on a level playing field with Maryland," said Alan Taylor, acting chief of the state's Division of Food Control.

"Our inspection system has been heading in this direction for a long time," Mr. Taylor said. "Now other states will have to meet the same stringent requirements that many of our seafood plants are already adhering to."

The Clinton administration unveiled the proposed Food and Drug Administration regulations yesterday in Washington. They would take effect one year after a 90-day period of public comment, in the spring of 1995.

Food poisoning causes 9,000 deaths annually in the United States and several times that number of illnesses, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Meat products, such as beef, pork and chicken, account for a higher percentage of the caseload than seafood.

Though fish and shellfish can be contaminated with bacteria and other disease-causing agents, they seldom contain salmonella -- the leading cause of food poisoning.

The FDA, which has responsibility for seafood safety, proposes that all 5,000 companies processing seafood in the United States use a system of monitoring called HACCP, for Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point. Federal health officials say that HACCP, in use by handlers of other foods, would greatly improve the odds that fish and shellfish are properly cleaned, cooled, cooked and stored before being sent to retail outlets.

Moreover, processors would have to ensure that the seafood they use comes from clean waters.

There are about 50 processing plants in Maryland and many companies that distribute seafood to retail stores. The FDA inspects the plants about once a year, and state inspectors try to inspect once a month.

About half the plants in Maryland already participate in voluntary hazard-control programs backed by the state that use HACCP-type monitoring. "We already have tight inspections here," said Bill Woodfield, head of Chesapeake Bay Seafood Industries, a group of seafood processors, wholesalers and watermen in Maryland. "Plants in states with lax inspection programs will probably have to spend more to upgrade their facilities, then pass the costs on to consumers."

Enforcement of the new program should weed out mavericks in the industry and those making bootleg sales, said Bob Millhauser, president of Southern Seafood in Baltimore.

"The unscrupulous competitors will either have to spend money to come up to these standards, or go out of business," he said. "It will impact on smaller companies without up-to-date facilities, and those who sell seafood off their trucks or at roadside stands. But seafood shouldn't be sold that way anyway."

The FDA is recommending that seafood companies monitor their

products daily through all critical stages of production, including cooking, cooling and shipping, and make these reports available to health inspectors as a "fingerprint" of each seafood plant.

Health officials have no way of monitoring the plants between government inspections.

The proposed regulations were praised by two Maryland seafood companies already using them as part of a nationwide, voluntary pilot program that began last year.

"We've had no problems," said Carol Haltaman, president of the John T. Handy Co. in Crisfield, which processes $5 million of soft-shell crabs annually.

"There is a lot of paperwork involved, and a lot of checks and balances. It seems like you're always taking the temperature of seafood. But once the system is in place, it's a very smooth and thorough program."

The Silver Sea Sales Co. of West Baltimore, which joined the program in August, has no regrets. "Our own people are trained to check the product from the time it's received, processed, packaged and loaded. It's a program of continuous in-house inspection," said Tom Rea, president of Silver Sea, which processes and distributes 2 million pounds of seafood annually to supermarkets and government commissaries.

Mr. Rea believes the new federal guidelines, more stringent than those of the state, involve "tremendous start-up fees" that will "absolutely put some companies out of business."

"It will be too cost-prohibitive for them to comply," he said. "We had to resurface all our walls to meet FDA specifications. Some companies will have to change their ways or get out. But how else are you going to protect the consumer?"

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