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NEWS ANALYSIS : Fishing Industry: Inspect Thyself

January 27, 1994|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The seafood industry , despite a checkered food safety record, is now being called upon to police itself with minimal federal oversight under a controversial plan announced last week by the Clinton Administration.

The current, patchwork program--sharply criticized as ineffective by critics--will be replaced with a system that relies more on detailed company record keeping than on state-of-the-art government inspections.

The U. S. Food and Drug Administration, responsible for implementing the 500-page regulation, will usher in the changes without any increase in its Office of Seafood's $42 million annual budget. The size of the fisheries industry --including domestic and imported product--dwarfs the federal inspection effort with annual sales of $35.2 billion in this country.

Public doubts about seafood safety have resulted in a five-year decline in per-capita consumption of fish and shellfish in the U.S. since a record 16.2 pounds per person were consumed in 1987. Trade reports indicate that consumption levels dropped to 14.8 pounds in 1992, the last year for which figures are available. Even industry representatives acknowledge that consumer confidence in seafood needs to be "re-established" and applaud the government's proposed changes.

Under the Clinton proposal, seafood companies must implement a system called Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point within a year of the publication of final regulations, expected in April.

HACCP, first developed in the 1960s, identifies the most important steps in food processing and establishes strict sanitation guidelines for these particular plant operations. A company must then chart its own progress in meeting the guidelines.

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Among the critical points in commercial seafood are areas such as storing, handling, cooking and packaging. For instance, records of where the fish were caught, plant cooking temperatures and freezer levels over extended periods must be maintained by the individual firms and be made available to federal inspectors on demand.

The size of the government's task, regardless of the inspection system used, is daunting.

There are an estimated 350 FDA inspectors to oversee 4,846 seafood processors, 1,571 repackers/warehouses and 924 importers.

(The Government Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, said in a 1991 food safety report that FDA did not know the location of all seafood plants in the country and thus could not accurately access the industry's sanitation record. FDA officials dispute the GAO claim.)

The disjointed nature of the seafood industry, ranging from mom-and-pop domestic operators to extensive fish imports from dozens of nations, has prompted the FDA to concentrate on about 1,000 "high-risk" processors or those that prepare ready-to-eat seafood. However, the high-risk plants will receive only one inspection per year from FDA; all others will be visited once every three years.

The easiest way for consumers to understand the new seafood HACCP program is to compare the FDA plan with tactics used by the Internal Revenue Service. The IRS regularly publicizes the consequences--fines, jail--of tax cheating but, in reality, is hopelessly understaffed to verify each and every tax return. As a result, the IRS targets its resources in specific income groups or where there has been a pattern of violations. Like the IRS, the FDA will require seafood companies to prepare detailed records of their sanitation performance but the agency will be hard pressed to visually inspect, or audit, any but the most likely violators once a year. Yet, the companies will be liable for criminal penalties if they have been found to violate the regulations.

Most sides in the seafood safety debate acknowledge that the HACCP-oriented seafood program is a step in the right direction. But some remain skeptical how the plan will be an improvement, considering that it requires no additional funding, places federal inspectors in processing plants only once a year, at best, and relies on the seafood industry's integrity to maintain accurate records.

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"If we find something wrong (in a seafood plant) and then we find out that a firm has been falsifying HACCP records then we will take appropriate action," said Thomas J. Billy, director of FDA's Office of Seafood.

The question of the authenticity of the HACCP records will determine the program's credibility.

The National Fisheries Institute, an Arlington, Va.,-based trade group, says the plan will improve the effectiveness of government inspections because of all the additional data available.

"This is a tough, new program that places legally enforceable requirements on the (seafood) industry," said Lee J. Weddig, institute executive vice president.

Others claim that all the additional record keeping will become irrelevant if inspections are not frequent.

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