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Study Looks at Federal Seafood Inspection

January 28, 1988|DANIEL P. PUZO | Times Staff Writer

The seafood industry is undergoing federal scrutiny as health officials review whether stricter controls should be placed on fish processing.

A congressionally mandated survey is determining the need, if any, for an increased government role in monitoring the safety of seafood supplies.

The project, already under way, will involve researchers at both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The two groups will determine if an inspection program, similar to those in place for poultry, red meat or canned foods, should be adopted for fish.

$5 Million Program

The effort, at a cost of $5 million, was launched after passage of legislation sponsored by Sen. Ted Stevens, (R-Alaska). As part of the review, the academy will report on health threats posed by pathogens, other organisms and environmental contaminants present in fish. Meanwhile, the fisheries service is studying handling and processing to find ways to reduce hazardous practices. Upon completion, the results and recommendations will be forwarded to Congress for consideration.

The regulatory activity resulted after a coalition of consumer groups repeatedly petitioned legislators and government agencies to increase federal oversight of seafood. The review also has the support of the National Fisheries Institute Inc., a trade group.

Only a fraction of the fish that comes to market is subject to continuous, on-site government inspection. On the other hand, every chicken and beef carcass entering the domestic food supply is viewed for defects by U.S. Department of Agriculture employees.

While acknowledging that changes are probably necessary in the present system, a top official for a fisheries trade group was doubtful that Congress, or the next Administration, would be willing to fund any seafood inspection system that would be comparable to those for meat.

"There are weaknesses in some areas of the (seafood) system that will require additional monitoring and enforcement activity," said Lee J. Weddig, executive vice president of Fisheries Institute Inc., in Washington. "But as for federal inspectors in every plant and dock, I don't think that's necessary, or warranted, considering the ultimate cost to taxpayers."

Weddig said his membership is split on the issue, but that most favor some revamping of the government's seafood role based on the current studies' final recommendations.

However, he emphasized that companies that now handle seafood are subject to numerous federal and state regulations even though every fish, bivalve or crustacean is not inspected. Among such guidelines is the U.S. Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, which establishes standards for much of the food processed in this country.

Weddig and his organization welcome the current, extensive review, even though the National Academy of Sciences' findings may actually intensify concerns about contaminated seafood supplies. Just such a scenario occurred early last year when the science panel reviewed the poultry industry's practices. At the time, the academy estimated that 35-37% of all uncooked chicken contains salmonella, a potentially fatal bacteria. News accounts of the study generated a great deal of negative publicity for the poultry producers and hurt sales.

Weddig said it wasn't likely that the review of seafood would arrive at a similar conclusion.

"Seafood is not risk-free, nor are any foods. It's just the degree of risks involved," he said, indicating that the problems associated with poultry, beef and pork were different than those associated with seafood.

Certainly, those fish caught far offshore are likely free of harmful chemicals. But one persistent criticism of the domestic industry is that fish continue to be harvested from waters contaminated as a result of industrial pollution or sewage dumping.

Clean Environments Stressed

"We do need a system with greater emphasis on clean environments and with greater restriction on where fish are harvested," he said.

Another potential image problem for the domestic industry is the status of imported fishery products, more than two-thirds of the total consumed in this country. Imported foods have been singled out by Food and Drug Administration personnel as an increasing source of food-borne bacteria. Surveillance of foreign shipments is being intensified.

Weddig endorsed such efforts, stating, "The international supplies of seafood? Well, some are good and some are not so good."

Lawry's Turns 50--One of the most familiar names in the Southern California food scene is celebrating a 50th anniversary this year. At a luncheon last week, Lawry's Foods Inc. & Lawry's Restaurants Inc. announced a series of events to commemorate half a century in both the dining and food product business.

In June, 1938, the Frank family opened its first restaurant, Lawry's The Prime Rib on La Cienega Boulevard. The firm expanded during the intervening years, opening four additional dinner houses.

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