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More Trouble on the Fish Front


U.S. Food and Drug Administration officials have intensified inspection of virtually all fresh tuna and mahi mahi from Ecuador and Trinidad after the fish caused about 70 people in five East Coast states to become ill late last month from scombroid poisoning. (Commercially frozen or canned products were not implicated. )

The outbreak, centered in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Virginia, Maryland and Florida, prompted FDA officials to dramatically lower the allowable levels of histamine in fish to 5 milligrams per 100 grams. Previously, the allowable levels were 20 milligrams, according to Richard Dees, with the FDA's Office of Seafood in Washington. The change was made official in an agency communication last week, he said.

The outbreak marks the second time in less than a week that the FDA has been confronted with serious problems with its regulation of imported fish. Last Wednesday, three former FDA inspectors pleaded guilty to taking bribes to allow potentially contaminated seafood into the United States. Another former FDA supervisory inspector was indicted on 18 felony counts for bribery and conspiracy to defraud the government. The incident, called the worst case of fraud and corruption in FDA history by a federal prosecutor, may have caused as much as 2 million pounds of adulterated fish and shellfish to enter consumer channels over several years.

Since first notified of the scombroid poisonings, caused by elevated levels of histamine in fish, FDA has refused entry to numerous shipments of imported fresh tuna and mahi mahi from both Trinidad and Ecuador. (Ecuador is a leading exporter of fresh tuna to the United States, while Trinidad is considered a minor source of the fish.)

A high histamine content indicates that the product has been improperly refrigerated at some point and that the scombrotoxins are multiplying rapidly, causing decomposition. The condition most often occurs in warm-water species.

"There have been a fairly good number (rejected)," said Sandra Whetstone, chief of the program and enforcement branch in the FDA's Office of Seafood. "I can't say if most shipments are OK because (FDA inspectors) have been too busy (dealing with the issue) to tabulate."

Whetstone said that the first weekend the FDA instructed its personnel to closely inspect fresh tuna, the agency's New York office looked at four shipments and denied entry to each one.

New Jersey health officials took the extraordinary step of issuing an advisory urging consumers not to purchase or eat fresh Ecuadorean tuna. The advisory is still in effect for anyone who may have purchased Ecuadorean tuna during May and frozen it for later consumption, according to GaryWolf, coordinator of the state Health Department's shellfish and seafood safety program in Trenton, N.J.

The FDA, however, did not issue any public advisory on the potential problems with fresh tuna after it learned of the outbreak.

"I don't think the need exists for an alert," said FDA's Dees. "In my opinion, this was an anomaly that happened to tuna entering the United States in the first weeks of May. We don't know what it was or why it happened. It caused a cluster of illnesses that occurred between May 1 and May 29 and then died out again."

Typically, the onset of symptoms of scombroid poisoning ranges from just a few minutes to hours after ingestion of the contaminated fish. Rash, flushing, diarrhea, headache, vomiting and cramps are some of the allergy-like symptoms associated with scombroid. While most cases are mild and of short duration, the illness can be severe in people with pre-existing heart or respiratory problems.

The Virginia Department of Health, which issued a report on the scombroid outbreak, conculded that "the consumer is dependent on the fishing industry for protection against this illness."

"Fish containing high levels of histamine do not necessarily show any signs of spoilage," according to the Virginia analyses. "Additionally, the toxin is not destroyed by proper cooking, freezing, canning or smoking. The only known prevention of scombroid fish poisoning is continuous icing or refrigeration of the fish from the time they are harvested to the time they are consumed."

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