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Policing the Fish You Eat

January 31, 1994

The Food and Drug Administration has reawakened as a consumer protection agency since David A. Kessler became commissioner in 1991. He has championed nutritional labeling on processed food and protective rules for vitamins and food supplements, and is now proposing a system to help ensure the safety of fresh seafood. This couldn't come sooner.

Repeated outbreaks of contamination-caused illnesses, including a big one last November linked to Louisiana oysters, have caused seafood sales and consumer confidence to fall in tandem. Worse yet, as with other food-safety issues, Kessler is starting from way back. There wasn't even a comprehensive federal inspection system to overhaul. He also had to make major changes without additional funding. Within those restrictions, the FDA proposal is inventive.

Correctly emphasizing prevention over punishment, it would require seafood companies to keep sophisticated records on the history and processing of their catches, including where they came from. For oversight, the agency has only 430 field inspectors to cover about 5,000 seafood processors. The hope is that the sheer volume of record-keeping would deter falsification because so many fraudulent entries would have to be made to hide malfeasance.

Admittedly, this is a self-policing plan. Still, the new approach is well worth a try. Consider that the Agriculture Department's meat safety system, which emphasizes inspection, didn't prevent last year's deaths from bacteria-laden ground beef and that salmonella in uncooked chicken is increasingly a problem.

A worrisome feature of the FDA's plan is that it barely addresses chemical contamination. Toxins in fish may include methyl mercury, dioxin and DDT, pollutants linked to all sorts of problems. By tracking where fish come from, the FDA proposal would at least build a reliable database on bacterial and chemical contamination of fishing grounds.

But beyond Kessler's new plan, the FDA must have more enforcement muscle, including the right to shut down non-complying processing plants and contaminated lake and bay fisheries. Agriculture Department inspectors can shut meatpackers, but the FDA is not permitted to close a plant on the spot. A court process is required for such an action by the FDA, and that agency has jurisdiction over few fisheries.

The proposed rules, though welcome, are a test of industry self-policing. If the industry doesn't comply, and fully, consumer confidence will plummet again. And that would hurt seafood sales even more.

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