Prospects for a mandatory seafood inspection program increased dramatically last week after a congressional committee voted to overhaul the present system of voluntary, and often irregular, federal oversight of fish and shellfish.
The House Agriculture Committee passed a bill that would inaugurate a $100-million annual effort aimed at ensuring seafood safety and, therefore, raise consumer confidence in domestic and imported fishery products.
The government's method of regulating the seafood industry has been beleaguered for several years. Critics of the system have charged that a lax federal effort resulted in increased contamination of fish from industrial pollutants, harmful bacteria and farm chemicals. The lowering of quality has led to increased consumer illnesses, some of them severe.
The impending change in regulation is welcomed by consumer advocates and industry representatives, although seafood trade groups are more recent converts to the need for such reforms.
"I think (the vote) was a big, positive step forward and it continues the momentum for fish inspection," said Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy. "This was a recognition of a public health problem that exists."
Haas' Washington-based group originally called for changes in the seafood program in 1983.
The National Fisheries Institute, a trade group with 1,000 corporate members, also supported the recent House Agriculture Committee vote.
With a few minor exceptions, the institute believes that the new proposal is a "good, solid bill," according to Richard Gutting, Jr., vice president for government relations. The group first announced its support for such an overhaul in April, 1989.
Under the present system, all seafood processors must comply with regulations established for the entire food industry in the Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act, which is enforced by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. However, FDA officials physically inspect seafood facilities only once every few years, if that often.
Another aspect of the current federal effort is a voluntary inspection program conducted by the Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service. Manufacturers must pay for this service, and the inspection focuses primarily on the cosmetic aspects of fish quality.
The potential health hazard posed by contaminated seafood was outlined recently in a Centers for Disease Control report. The CDC found, for instance, that between the years 1983 and 1987 there were 179 contamination outbreaks in which the vehicle of infection was either fish or shellfish. (An outbreak is defined by CDC as a case in which two or more persons experience a similar illness after ingestion of a common food.)
The illnesses discussed in the CDC report were caused by bacterial agents or naturally occurring chemicals present in the fish and shellfish. The 179 seafood outbreaks represent 7.4% of the total number of food-borne illnesses reported to the CDC during the five-year period. However, the figure is proportionally higher than the portion of seafood present in the American diet.
In interpreting the data, the CDC emphasized that "the number of outbreaks of food-borne disease reported . . . clearly represents only a small fraction of the outbreaks that occur." In fact, government epidemiologists estimate that only 10% of all food-related illness are ever reported to health authorities. So the extent of the problem goes well beyond those episodes recently chronicled by CDC.
Motivated in part by such statistics, Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. Kika de la Garza (D-Tex.) introduced the Fish Inspection Seafood Healthfulness Act, or H.R. 3508. The measure is similar in content to one that was recently passed by the Senate Agriculture Committee and sponsored by Sen. George Mitchell (D-Me.).
The actual framework of any future federal inspection program is still to be worked out between at least three House committees involved with the issue, as well as the Senate. However, the House Agriculture Committee's action is considered pivotal to the process. Further, Congressional observers state that it is possible that the Senate and House will reconcile the various inspection bills sometime after lawmakers return from their August recess.
Still to be settled is whether the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration should be the principal agency responsible for inspection. USDA has been criticized in the past for being too close to the industries it regulates. FDA, however, with only a $600 million annual budget, is believed to be too understaffed to take on everything that fish inspection will ultimately require.