Safe seafood

January 27, 1994

It's not often that the Food and Drug Administration issues new, stronger regulations and an industry cheers. Yet in the case of FDA seafood rules released last week, responsible processors are already complying with the new requirements. In fact, some of their trade groups had a part in drafting them. So did some consumer watchdog groups.

In Maryland, major seafood processors already follow the proposed procedures, which should take effect in about 15 months. So there will be little, if any, additional cost to them, but some of their competitors elsewhere who have been undercutting Chesapeake region prices may find themselves spending to catch up. Maryland consumers, with their special affinity for seafood, can feel more secure eating seafood from elsewhere.

FDA's new regulations have greater potential importance. They create a new approach to food inspections that might become the standard for meat and other foods. Seafood is especially sensitive because it is highly perishable and more vulnerable to toxins that cause food poisoning. Perhaps as many as 60,000 people get sick from badly handled seafood each year. The Maryland Health Department knows of 154 cases last year, but many go unreported.

The new approach, as FDA Director David Kessler explained it, is chasing problems before they occur rather than afterward. Now FDA inspectors try to find out why an outbreak of food poisoning occurred. Under the new procedures, they will work with seafood dealers to identify the steps in processing when the fish are vulnerable to particular hazards, then make sure safeguards to prevent them are in effect.

It sounds so sensible it's remarkable the FDA didn't think of it sooner. Fortunately, some in the seafood processing industry did, and many plants already follow this procedure.

All this is unlikely to cost the taxpayer or consumer much more money. The additional expense to seafood processors is estimated at perhaps $80 million -- not much for a $35 billion-a-year business. And the FDA office in charge of seafood inspections has been given a larger budget in recent years, enough to pay for the new inspection system. Would that all new government regulations were so sensible, so welcome and so cost-effective.

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