Two separate hearings were held in Congress last week on various seafood safety issues. At the heart of each meeting was whether the federal government should launch a mandatory inspection program for fish and shellfish.
The discussions occurred on the heels of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration report released last month that stated that seafood consumption declined about 3% in 1988. After several years of increases, per-capita consumption dropped to 15 pounds last year, or off from its record level of 15.4 pounds in 1987.
Driving the decline were several factors, including generally higher prices and the growing public doubts about the wholesomeness of fish.
"Reports of contaminated coastal waters and of sickness and deaths due to contaminated seafood--usually raw seafood--have hurt the industry's image," reports Nutrition Week, a weekly newsletter from the Community Nutrition Institute in Washington.
Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a consumer advocacy group, has been calling for more federal oversight of fishery products since 1974.
"Consumers have well-founded concerns about the safety of seafood and they are beginning to question whether seafood is a 'healthy' protein source," said Ellen Haas, Public Voice's executive director.
Though far from being an ally of Public Voice, a leading industry trade group is also urging Congress to pass legislation that would expand and improve the current--mostly voluntary--inspection system.
The National Fisheries Institute proposes a multi-faceted approach that would address the $30 billion industry's many different components.
"The Institute believes (consumer) confidence is in jeopardy and will be maintained and strengthened only through an improved regulatory system that includes mandatory inspection," said Lee Weddig, the group's executive vice president.
In a report released before the Congressional hearings, the group listed some of the areas that need particular attention in any future program. These include:
--Exotic species: Fish are now imported from dozens of different countries and are being harvested from distant tropical and subtropical waters. Some of these species--such as mahi-mahi, barracuda and other--develop naturally occurring toxins. The most common of these are scombroid and ciquatera, each of which has been linked to a growing number of illnesses, especially in states such as Florida, California and Hawaii.
--Aquaculture: Fish farmers are using various medications and other compounds to facilitate rapid growth in their stock as well as maintain its health. This practice should be monitored, according to NFI.
--Ready-to-Eat: The rapidly expanding category of convenience foods poses problems because few of these items require additional cooking once the products or entrees leave the manufacturing plant. There are several opportunities for harmful bacteria to grow if such products are not stored and handled properly.
--Frozen-at-Sea: Any inspection program would need to take into account the handling and storage practices aboard vessels that catch, gut, fillet, package and freeze fish at sea.
--Harmful Bacteria: Newly emerging pathogens are, increasingly, considered threats to the food supply. Two such microorganisms, Listeria monocytogenes and Vibrio vulnificus, are of particular concern to the seafood industry. Listeria is more likely to infect processed foods, such as cooked crab, while Vibrio is being found in Gulf Coast oysters, especially during the warm water months. New regulations and production guidelines must address these problems, the group states.
--Shellfish: More attention needs to be directed toward the environmental conditions where shellfish, such as oysters and clams, are harvested. The group wants increased federal funding for monitoring of water conditions. More revenue also needs to be directed toward deterring illegal harvesting from closed or contaminated water.
--Environmental Contaminants: The oceans have been a convenient dumping ground for toxic wastes for decades and the practice inevitably has harmed sea life and increased the chemical contamination of some seafood species. The residues that may be present in fish from industrial waste is a long-term health risk and needs to be addressed in any new inspection program.
--Sport Fishermen: There is little data on the number of illnesses caused by consumption of seafood caught by recreational fishers. Often the sportsmen are allowed to harvest fish from waters closed to the commercial fleets because of potential contamination.
--Imports: Governments that intend to ship fish to the United States should be required to conform with any improved standards for seafood sold in this country.
The National Fisheries Institute has stated that the group's 100 corporate members are in favor of an intensive regulatory effort in all areas where seafood demonstrates "statistical evidence of illness."