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New U.S. Seafood Safety Rules Expected to Be Unveiled : Health: Proposal would subject industry to oversight by regulators. System now responds only when illnesses attributed to poisoning are reported.


WASHINGTON — Federal health officials are expected to announce major new regulations today designed to ensure the safety of the nation's seafood supply, according to sources familiar with the proposal.

The new initiative--scheduled to be announced at a press conference by Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David A. Kessler--will require the seafood industry to establish new controls that will be subject to oversight by federal regulators.

There are about 33,000 food-borne illnesses reported annually attributed to seafood poisoning, according to public health experts.

Currently, the federal regulatory system is set up to respond only after problems occur--not before. Federal health officials hope that the new system will head off potential problems and make the industry more accountable for the safety of its products, sources said.

The proposed regulations will be subject to public comment for the next 90 days before a final rule is published. They will take effect one year after publication of the final regulations.


The regulations are modeled after an existing system known as the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point, which was originally designed some years ago by private food companies and NASA to safeguard the food prepared for astronauts.

The system is modeled on a science-based analysis of potential dangers and where they can occur during food processing. The theory is that once these critical control points are identified, measures can be taken.

For example, if a seafood company were to purchase swordfish, it would be required to check to see whether the fish had been caught in harvest areas known to be contaminated with methyl mercury, a known hazardous substance.

In the event that information about the harvest area was unavailable or insufficient, companies would be required to sample and test for the chemical, sources said.

All seafood processors, packers and warehouses will be required to adopt their own systems for monitoring their products and to maintain detailed records of those systems that will regularly be inspected by FDA and state inspectors, sources said.

Mark Epstein, executive director of Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, a public interest group involved in this issue since 1986, applauded the federal effort but said it did not go far enough.

"The FDA has taken a good first step, but by itself this program does not adequately protect consumers," he said. "FDA is going to need increased authority and funding if it is truly going to reduce needless seafood illnesses and deaths."

And without more frequent inspections of processing plants, the new plan "will be nothing more than an industry honor system," he added.

Under the plan, companies also would have to prove that ready-to-eat seafood has been cooked to a safe temperature, that safeguards were taken against cross-contamination between cooked and raw seafood and that finished products are held at the proper temperature, sources said.

The new rules will apply equally to domestic and imported seafood.

Sources said the FDA also is weighing if such preventive measures can be tailor-made for other segments of the food industry.

The FDA plans to hold a series of public meetings in nine cities, including Los Angeles, during the next two months to discuss the proposals.

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