CHICAGO — Federal oversight of seafood remains "minimal" despite record sales of fishery products, a leading consumer advocate claimed at a food industry gathering here.
The government's failure to adequately monitor both domestic and foreign fish supplies is contributing to an increased number of illnesses from seafood, said Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, in a speech to the Food Marketing Institute's annual convention.
"Seafood remains the only flesh food that does not undergo mandatory federal inspection," she said. "Unlike meat and poultry, which receive continuous inspection by federal employees, most fish is sold virtually unchecked. The consequence . . . is that thousands of unsuspecting Americans get unnecessarily ill from seafood each year."
Estimates place the total number of food-related illnesses in excess of 20 million annually. Haas, citing federal statistics, said that 24% of this total can be traced to seafood contaminated with harmful bacteria, parasites or chemical residues from water pollution. (Though most of these cases involve only mild stomach discomfort, some are fatal.)
Haas' criticism comes at a time when the National Marine Fisheries Service, at Congress' behest, is reviewing industry practices in order to identify the risks associated with fish and shellfish.
The federal agency will also determine what corrective measures might lessen the safety problems. The study, assisted by the National Academy of Sciences, is scheduled for completion in June, 1990.
Although in favor of the ongoing federal analysis, a Washington-based seafood trade association official is downplaying the threat posed by fishery products.
"Different foods have different degrees of risk," said Lee Weddig, executive vice president of the National Fisheries Institute. "Of the 13 billion seafood meals consumed annually (in this country), very few present a degree of risk more severe than other foods of animal origin."
Weddig, who also spoke to the convention, took issue with Haas' claim that little is being done, by industry or federal agencies, to protect consumers.
The government's current efforts are "far from minimal," he said, considering that all companies must comply with the U.S. Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, which the Food and Drug Administration enforces.
"A recent study of FDA (seafood-related operations) showed annual activity in the range of 870 to 1,400 plant visits, 6,000 sample collections and 5,000 wharf exams. This doesn't seem inconsequential to me," he said.
Weddig also emphasized that fishery companies are further regulated by the various state health departments. As an extra measure of safety, firms can also request assistance from the National Marine Fisheries Service, which offers voluntary inspection of plants and products.
However, the voluntary program covers only about 13% of the seafood sold in this country, according to Haas. Nor does the agency monitor for many chemical contaminants under the current system, she added.
Thomas Billy, deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, in a presentation to the group, said there is a concentration of those seafood items which pose the most risk. For instance, only 20 to 30 seafood species, out of 300 sold in the United States, are responsible for all the reported illnesses.
Those most likely to cause a problem include any fish traditionally consumed raw or minimally cooked and tropical reef fish, such as barracuda, which may carry ciquatoxin, a potentially fatal bacteria. Another suspect group is warm water species, such as mackerel and mahi-mahi, which develop scromboid poison when improperly stored on boats after being caught.
But improving safety is not as simple as instituting seafood inspection programs identical to those for chicken or beef, he said.
"Fish and shellfish are cold-blooded versus meat- (producing animals) which are warm-blooded. So, you do not have the same diseases. Seafood means different problems," Billy said.
There is some question, he said, as to where any future inspection service should begin reviewing the industry's handling and processing practices.
"There are 130,000 fishing vessels in the United States. Are they all to be included in an inspection program? By the same token, do we inspect farms?" he said, knowing that no such federal review exists.
Haas' Washington-based group, along with a coalition of 20 other consumer and environmental organizations, is pressing for a mandatory program that would, in fact, require government certification for all fishing vessels. The boats would also be inspected on a regular basis.
The coalition is further stressing the need for chemical residue testing of seafood as a means of preventing fish, caught in industrially polluted waters, from entering retail channels. The current system, operated by the FDA, is considered "inadequate," Haas said.
"In 1985, the (FDA) checked only 550 individual fish for chemical residues--a tiny fraction compared to the 3 billion pounds (of seafood) Americans consumed that same year. And FDA analyzes fish for only a very small number of the hundreds of toxins that could contaminate fish," Haas said.
Though environmental pollution is a concern, Billy said that current regulations already prohibit boats from netting fish in waters known to be contaminated.
At stake in the debate over seafood safety is consumer confidence in fishery products. Recently released statistics show that, in 1987, U.S. per capita consumption of seafood was a record 15.4 pounds. The latest increase is the fifth consecutive year in which the total set a new, all-time high.