A proposed mandatory seafood inspection program cleared a major congressional hurdle Wednesday when the House Agriculture Committee passed a bill that would place all fish and shellfish products under extensive federal scrutiny for safety and wholesomeness.
The legislation would greatly expand the much-criticized voluntary and irregular inspection effort that is currently in place. Four federal agencies would play a role in operating the planned $100-million, taxpayer-funded program. Wednesday's action was supported both by industry and consumer groups.
The safety of fishery products has been called into question repeatedly during the last several years. There have been numerous claims by consumer groups that the absence of regular federal inspections has resulted in elevated contamination levels in fish causing illnesses, some severe. The contaminants include harmful bacteria, industrial pollutants, farm chemicals and naturally occurring toxins.
A leading industry trade association "aggressively" endorsed legislation calling for a mandatory inspection program as far back as April, 1989, according to Clare G. Vanderbeek, vice president with the National Fisheries Institute, a group based in Arlington, Va. The institute called the legislation a "good, solid bill."
The legislation, sponsored by Agriculture Committee Chairman E. (Kika) de la Garza (D-Tex.), is similar in content to a bill recently passed by the Senate Agriculture Committee.
The House bill would make the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which currently operates the meat and poultry inspection program, the lead seafood regulatory agency. The legislation also calls on the Food and Drug Administration to establish acceptable criteria for microbiological contaminants. The Environmental Protection Agency would set allowable levels for pesticide residues. And the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Services would inspect fishing boats that process seafood.