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An Undertow of Health Concerns : Government's inspection problem may include rotten inspectors as well as rotten fish

June 28, 1992

Just last month, Food and Drug Administration boss David A. Kessler assured leaders of the seafood industry--buffeted by reports of tainted fish in retail markets--that the FDA's existing seafood inspection program "protects the public health and is appropriate for assuring seafood safety." Three months ago, in remarks to a consumer group, Kessler announced a "new enforcement strategy" specifically to intercept tainted or spoiled seafood from foreign sources, which account for about half of all U.S. sales.

But Kessler's problems may now extend beyond rotten fish to include some rotten inspectors. Federal grand jury indictments filed this month in New Jersey allege that more than 2 million pounds of potentially contaminated seafood was imported as a result of bribes paid to federal inspectors. A former FDA supervisor and four importers were charged with bribery, submitting false documents and conspiracy to defraud the government in transactions dating to 1985. The indictments charge that inspectors were bribed to approve importation of seafood that already had been rejected at other U.S. ports.

U.S. Atty. Michael Chertoff called the case "one of the largest, if not the largest, dealing with corruption and fraud in FDA history." Three former FDA inspectors have pleaded guilty in the case and agreed to testify at trial.

Among the tainted products entering U.S. markets were swordfish with illegal mercury levels, langoustines contaminated with bacteria indicating the presence of human waste, decomposed lobster tails and shrimp contaminated with salmonella. Today, a story in The Times raises public-health questions about the U.S. halibut harvest.

Kessler calls the actions of the former employees intolerable and says that the FDA has made changes to prevent such activities. Even so, the indictments painfully highlight systematic failures in the existing seafood inspection program, failures that Congress continues to ignore. Though all poultry and beef must be inspected before sale, imported and domestic seafood goes to market without such scrutiny. Too much of the fish consumed by Americans is tainted; a federal study last year found that 20% of fish analyzed in the Pacific region showed evidence of contamination, decomposition or filth.

Legislation to enact a comprehensive inspection program with teeth has repeatedly failed to gain support from Congress and President Bush. A new bill was introduced in April that gives enforcement responsibility to the Commerce Department, for domestic seafood, and the Agriculture Department, for imports.

We hope the latest, troubling disclosures provide renewed impetus for action.

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