Hopes for a vastly improved federal seafood inspection program were dashed recently when Congress failed to reconcile two competing bills on the subject before adjourning for an election-day recess. The stalemate was lamented by both consumer groups and the seafoodindustry.
There is a chance that legislators can reconcile the differences, but such a development is considered highly unlikely in a lame-duck session. The 102nd Congress will not convene until January.
As a result, years of effort directed toward bolstering oversight of fishery products may have been lost until well into 1991, if not later.
Public Voice for Food & Health Policy, a Washington-based advocacy group, decried the deadlock. "Consumers lost a significant food safety victory over a Federal agency 'turf' battle," the group announced last week.
Representatives of the National Fisheries Institute, an Alexandria, Va.-based trade group, also expressed dismay. "We're disappointed," said Lee Weddig, the institute's executive vice president. "We worked hard the past 18 months (to get an inspection bill passed). . . . When it didn't materialize, we were disappointed, yes."
Weddig, however, said his members were encouraged that the legislation got as far as it did in both the House and Senate. "We made a tremendous amount of progress toward a mandatory inspection program," he said. "Under more serene circumstances, or without a budget battle and tax reform, we may have been able to bring the proposals together. Unfortunately, time ran out."
Industry representatives believe it is important to have a strong federal inspection program in place in order to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of seafood and maintain consumer confidence in fish products.
"The time has come for seafood inspection. Consumers want it and the industry wants it," said Weddig.
The breakdown was due to a jurisdictional dispute between the Senate and House. The Fish Safety Act of 1990 was passed unanimously by the Senate on Sept. 12.
The major points of the legislation, sponsored by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine), are:
--U.S. Department of Agriculture is the leading seafood agency (USDA already operates the meat and poultry inspection programs);
--U.S. Food and Drug Administration would establish limits for chemical and microbial contaminants in fish and shellfish;
--U.S. Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service would monitor water quality and restrict or close fishing operations when necessary;
--Finfish and shellfish must meet the same standards under the program for microbial or chemical contaminants;
--And imported fishery products must conform to U.S. standards.
A similar version of the Mitchell bill was offered in the House by Rep. Kika de la Garza (D-Tex.), chairman of the agriculture committee.
Instead of passing the De la Garza bill, the House voted in favor of an alternative sponsored by Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Gerry Studds (D-Mass.). This bill:
--Virtually eliminates USDA from fish inspection and gives major roles to FDA and the National Marine Fisheries Service;
--Would change adulteration standards for all foods by lowering the level of acceptable contaminants;
--Focuses on major health risks such as shellfish rather than on all fishery products;
--Calls for an 18-month study to expand current federal efforts;
--Places responsibility for enforcing portions of the program with state governments, and
--Would extend whistle-blower protection to private-sector employees.
Any hopes of a seafood inspection agreement collapsed because one House faction wanted the USDA to lead the program while another preferred FDA. The two principal food regulatory agencies are viewed differently by the food industry: The USDA is considered more accommodating while FDA is perceived, at times, as stringent and punitive.
"The House of Representatives has jeopardized the enactment of strong public health guarantees," said Ellen Haas, executive director of Public Voice. "Consumers are left with our current patchwork of inspection 'gestures.' "
The present system of voluntary seafood inspection, operated by the U.S. Commerce Department, is primarily concerned with the appearance of fish. Of course, seafood products must conform to federal health codes for all foods. However, enforcement of these laws are haphazard and infrequent. Inspection duties are left to an understaffed FDA and state governments.
The outlook for seafood legislation passing next year may also have been soured by recent events.
"Short of a seafood/Alar-type controversy, there is not a whole lot of eagerness to get back into fights (about fish inspection) in Congress and this issue requires fighting," said Skip Stiles, staff director for a House agriculture subcommittee. "The federal agencies are divided over the topic and so are the Congressional committees. A lot of time and work went into this and we are disappointed, too."
Stiles added that any 1991 seafood inspection initiative will have to compete in Congress with many other important environmental and consumer issues.