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October 22, 1987|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

A coalition of 20 consumer groups is pressing Congress to create a seafood inspection program similar to those currently in place for meat and poultry.

The effort was launched amid claims that the increasing presence of industrial pollutants and harmful bacteria in fish may pose a serious public health problem.

The call for a greater federal role comes at a time when the consumption, price and popularity of seafood are at record levels.

The campaign, led by Public Voice for Food & Health Policy, recently petitioned both the Senate and House Agriculture Committees to hold hearings on the issue later this year.

At present, there is no mandatory inspection program to determine whether seafood is safe to eat before it reaches retail channels. Although two federal agencies do maintain some surveillance of commercial fish products, their combined programs cover only a fraction of the total supply.

For instance, in 1986, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration tested only 500 fish for toxic chemical residues out of the more than 3 billion pounds consumed in this country, according to statistics compiled by Public Voice. The Washington-based group also found that the National Marine Fisheries Service, under a voluntary, industry-financed plan, inspected about 13% of all U.S. seafood last year.

"More and more people are getting sick from eating fish because the dangers (from pollutants and bacteria) are increasing," said Pat Kelly of Public Voice. "One of the really critical points is that people don't realize fish are uninspected. They assume there is the same kind of health protection for seafood that is present with meat and poultry."

(The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires that all meat and poultry undergo at least a visual inspection by agency representatives before the food leaves processing plants.)

Public Voice, along with its coalition partners, have designated several coastal areas as being particularly high in industrial pollutants. Targeted areas, some of which still serve as sources of fish, include Santa Monica Bay, the Great Lakes, Puget Sound and the waters off New York state. Water quality in these areas suffers from a variety of problems including chemical run-off from agricultural production, waste disposal and other garbage-related dumping.

In support of its petition, Public Voice also sites a federal estimate that links about 20% of all food-borne illnesses in this country to seafood.

Some of the groups joining in the lobbying effort include Americans For Safe Food, Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Consumer Federation of America and Public Citizen's Congress Watch.

As part of the campaign to establish a mandatory fish inspection program, Public Voice is offering a 16-page booklet that details the extent of the problem and contains tips on safe seafood preparation. A copy of the pamphlet can be obtained by sending $2 to Public Voice, 1001 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 522, Washington 20036.

Bacteria Search Intensified--The meat processing industry is bracing for what could be an embarrassing series of government recalls because of the suspected presence of Listeria monocytogenes, a harmful bacteria, in a wide variety of products, according to a Washington-based newsletter.

Nutrition Week, published by the Community Nutrition Institute, reports that both federal and private-sector scientists have isolated Listeria from cooked and ready-to-eat meat products.

The pathogen causes flu-like symptoms and can prove fatal to infants, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients.

Once thought to be a benign organism, Listeria has become a major concern for health officials after 40 deaths were attributed to the bacteria during the 1985 Jalisco cheese contamination incident in Los Angeles.

Now, an increase in federal recalls, or stop-sale orders, is anticipated in the coming months because the U.S. Department of Agriculture has established a zero-tolerance level for the bacteria in meat products. In other words, no amount of Listeria is considered safe or acceptable, according to the report.

The USDA's recent action conforms with a two-year-old FDA position. (The two agencies divide regulatory activity in the food world. The USDA is responsible for poultry, livestock and their byproducts, while the FDA has jurisdiction over all other foods.)

"A government-wide campaign to control Listeria may be developing now that a zero-tolerance policy has been adopted across all (federal) agencies," the newsletter reported.

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